Category Archives: Americas

(1938 – )

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1930– )

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

The Relief of Suffering: Virtues and Duties 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Self-empowerment Socially Neutral? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering and Subjectivity 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Logic of the Arguments 

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

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

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

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

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

Physician Integrity 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reason, Rationality, and Physician-Assisted Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curing One Evil with Another 

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

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


from The Courage to Be


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

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

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

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




The Meaning of Despair

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

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

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

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


from Is Suicide Justifiable?


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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


from The Living of Charlotte Perkins    Gilman
Suicide Note, August 17, 1935
from The Right to Die


Charlotte Perkins Gilman—writer, philosopher, feminist, and social critic—contributed significantly to 20th-century political and feminist theory. Born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, she lived much of her childhood in poverty after her father left the family when she was seven years old. She taught herself to read, studied music, and was largely self-educated in the fields of history, sociology, biology, and evolution. She attended public school sporadically until age 15 and later studied at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Gilman became active in women’s issues at a young age. She founded a women’s gym in Providence when she was 21 at a time when overexertion was thought to cause hysteria in women. She later gained recognition as a lecturer and writer, focusing her talents on the Nationalist Movement, a type of socialism based on Edward Bellamy’s thought and portrayed in his novel Looking Backward (1888). Gilman’s philosophy, activism, and writings showed enormous breadth, and included works on political and social reform, support for the Labor Movement and women’s suffrage, poetry, essays, and studies on gender issues in economics, anthropology, and history. She is also known for her famous work of short fiction The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a semi-autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown following the birth of her daughter, which, like Virginia Woolf’s [q.v.] Mrs. Dalloway (1925), includes a searing critique of the manner in which the medical community treated women’s mental health near the turn of the century.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932. Before this diagnosis, Gilman had written about euthanasia and right-to-die issues. In one passage from her posthumously published autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), she remarks after visiting her ill father in a sanitarium that a future civilized society would not “maintain such a horror.” In 1935, after living three years with a cancer she had been told would kill her within a year and a half, Gilman ended her life by inhaling chloroform. She left a letter, conventionally called a suicide note, which stressed her view of the primacy of human relationships and social responsibility (“Human life consists in mutual service”) and ended in the famous line: “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”

At the time of her death, she left with her agent the manuscript of an article entitled “The Right to Die,” a defense not only of suicide but also of voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary euthanasia, requesting that it be published after her death. It was intended as a piece for discussion at the height of the euthanasia movement in the United States, before the horrors of the Nazi holocaust became known.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York:  D. Appleton-Century Co.), 1935, pp. 215, 333-335, 331; “The Right to Die”, The Forum and Century, Vol. XCIV, no. 5 (Nov. 1935), pp. 297-300.



“Mother gets letter saying Father is worse.  Go to see him at sanitarium, Delaware Water Gap.  He is much better and seems glad to see me.” I stayed overnight, next day: “Little talk with Father.  Give him $5.”—if from me or mother I do not recall. There were many such visits when I was in or near New York. He seemed to value my coming—so long as he knew me. He lingered on, till the beginning of 1900. Softening of the brain. It is not right that a brilliant intellect should be allowed to sink to idiocy, and die slowly, hideously. Some day when we are more civilized we shall not maintain such a horror.

 …In January, 1932, I discovered that I had cancer of the breast. My only distress was for Houghton. I had not the least objection to dying. But I did not propose to die of this, so I promptly bought sufficient chloroform as a substitute. Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.

Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.

Going to my doctor for definite assurance, he solemnly agreed with my diagnosis and thought the case inoperable.

“Well,” said I cheerfully, “how long does it take?” He estimated a year and a half.  “How long shall I be able to type?”  I asked. “I must finish my Ethics.” He thought I might be quite comfortable for six months. It is now three and a half years and this obliging malady has given me no pain yet.

Then came what was pain—telling Houghton. He wanted an expert opinion, and we got it. No mistake. Then, since I utterly refused a late operation, he urged me to try X-ray treatment, which I did with good effects. He suffered a thousand times more than I did—but not for long. On the fourth of May, 1934, he suddenly died, from cerebral hemorrhage.

Whatever I felt of loss and pain was outweighed by gratitude for an instant, painless death for him, and that he did not have to see me wither and die—and he be left alone.

I flew to Pasadena, California, in the fall of 1934, to be near my daughter and grandchildren. Grace Channing, my lifelong friend, has come out to be with me. We two have a little house next door but one to my Katharine, who is a heavenly nurse and companion. Dorothy and Walter, her children, are a delight. Mr. Chamberlin, my son-in-law, has made the place into a garden wherein I spend happy afternoons under an orange-tree—the delicious fragrance drifting over me, the white petals lightly falling—in May! Now it is small green oranges occasionally thumping.

One thing I have had to complain of—shingles. Shingles—for six weeks. A cancer that doesn’t show and doesn’t hurt, I can readily put up with; it is easy enough to be sick as long as you feel well—but shingles!

People are heavenly good to me. Dear friends write to me, with outrageous praises. I am most unconcernedly willing to die when I get ready. I have no faintest belief in personal immortality—no interest in nor desire for it.

My life is in Humanity—and that goes on. My contentment is in God—and That goes on. The Social Consciousness, fully accepted, automatically eliminates both selfishness and pride. The one predominant duty is to find one’s work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that.

The religion, the philosophy, set up so early, have seen me through.



Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortunate, or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.



Should an incurable invalid, suffering constant pain and begging for a quicker, easier death, be granted that mercy?
Should a hopeless idiot, lunatic, or helpless paretic be laboriously kept alive?

Should certain grades of criminals be painlessly removed—or cruelly condemned to the cumulative evil of imprisonment?

Is suicide sometimes quite justifiable?

We have changed our minds more than once on these matters and are in process of changing them again. On the above questions, asked a hundred or even fifty years ago, there would have been scant discussion. Humans were mainly agreed that certain criminals deserved death, that suicide was a sin, and that agonized invalids and healthy idiots were to be cherished carefully.

The influence of the Christian religion has done much to establish a sort of dogma of the “sanctity of human life,” but the ancient religions of India went further, holding all life sacred, to such an extent that the pious Jain sweeps the path before him lest he step on a worm.

What is the “sanctity of human life”?  Why is it sacred?  How is it sacred?  When is it sacred?

Is it sacred where we lavishly reproduce it, without thought or purpose?  While it is going on?  Or only when it is about to end?

Our mental attics are full of old ideas and emotions, which we preserve sentimentally but never examine. The advance of the world’s thought is promoted by those whose vigorous minds seize upon inert doctrines and passive convictions and shake them into life or into tatters. This theory that suicide is a sin is being so shaken today.

Why has not a man the right to take his own life? Shaw, the inveterate shaker of old ideas, says that his own life is the only one a man has a right to take.

Against this apparently natural right stand two assumptions, one that it is cowardly, the other that it is a sin. The brave man is supposed to endure long, hopeless agony to the bitter end, as an exhibition of courage; the moral man similarly to bear incurable suffering, because to shorten his torment would be wrong.

How much more reasonable is the spirit of the sturdy old country doctor who was found dead in his bed, with a revolver by his side and the brief note, “There’s no damn cancer going to get ahead of me!”

Why it should please God to have a harmless victim suffer prolonged agony was never made clear; but those who so thought also assumed that whatever happened was God’s will, that He was afflicting us for some wise purpose of His own and did not like to be thwarted, balked in his plan of punishment so to speak. Astonishing calumnies have been believed of God.

There is a pleasant tale of an ingenious person, captive of savages and obliged to watch the horrors of his comrades’ dreadful deaths. When his turn came, he told the credulous natives that he knew of an herb which, when rubbed upon the skin, rendered it impervious to any weapon and which he would show them if they would spare him.

So they accompanied him here and there in the forest, till he picked a certain rare plant, which he rubbed well on the side of his neck. Then he laid his head on a log and told them to strike as hard as they liked. Down came the ax, and off went a grinning ghost, enjoying their discomfiture—at least it is pleasant to think so. At any rate he was not tortured. But he had lied, to be sure, and practically committed suicide. Was it sin?

Suicide was a gentleman’s exit in ancient Rome, as it is yet in the Orient. It must have been too popular in the misery of the Dark Ages, for a discerning church soon decided that it was extremely wrong. It was a difficult offense to penalize, the offender having escaped, so they punished the corpse, burying it with a stake through the body, at a crossroads, that, instead of enjoying seclusion and consecrated ground, it might be trampled over by all who passed.


A very special damnation having been provided for such rebellious souls, suicide fell into disrepute. It is now becoming popular again, not merely as a justifiable escape from an unbearable position but as a hopeful experiment for discouraged youth. And no more pathetic instance of the blind groping of such religionless young people could be asked. They no longer believe in the kind of God worshiped by their ancestors, not in “His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” They quite repudiate the earlier moral sense and have not yet succeeded in evolving any satisfactory substitute.

It might be advanced, as consolation in these too-frequent tragedies, that minds so word-befuddled would not in all probability have been of much service to the world had they survived; but such harsh criticism fails to estimate the capacity for suffering which belongs to youth.

As with most moral questions, the confusion lies in our outdated sense of individuality, our failure to recognize social responsibility. Youth is, of course, naturally egotistical, and in home, school, church, and ordinary contact little is done to develop social consciousness.

That an individual’s life, growth, and happiness are dependent on interrelation with other people and that each of us owes to others the best service of a lifetime is not accepted by those who back out of life because it hurts. Such premature and ill-based suicide is timid, feeble, foolish, and, in respect to social responsibility, dishonorable. It is desertion, not in the face of the enemy but before imagined enemies.

On the other hand, military law forbids the attempt to hold an indefensible position. There are times when surrender is quite justifiable. If men or women are beyond usefulness, feel that they are of no service or comfort to any one but a heavy burden and expense, and, above all, if they suffer hopelessly, they have a right to leave.

But, while we are beginning to open the door for a man to take his own life with good reason, we are trying to close it upon the right of society to take the life of a criminal. The opponents of capital punishment rest their arguments largely on the alleged sanctity of human life and further on the fact that the severe and cruel penalties of earlier times did not prevent crime.

This sudden application of sanctity to man at the point of death, a life neglected and corrupted from babyhood, is unconvincing. It is true that severe punishment does not prevent crime, but neither does light punishment or no punishment at all. Can we prevent crime after it has been committed? The prevention must begin with birth, must ensure the best conditions for growth and education, for rightly chosen employment, for rest and recreation.

But, unfortunately, criminals sometimes appear from families of the enlightened and well-to-do, cases of atavism, primitive characters breaking out into the modern world most mischievously. And, furthermore, society is open to many kinds of perversion and disease.

Since we have criminals, engaged in transmitting and increasing evil, what are we to do with them? The most tenderly sentimental would hardly suggest leaving them at large.

To remove such a diseased character as this is not an act of “punishment”; it is social surgery, the prompt excision of the affected part. Those who call death cruel and urge imprisonment instead do not realize the greater cruelty and cumulative danger of confinement.

Much of vice and crime is distinctly infectious. “Evil communications corrupt good manners,” and no antitoxin has been found to prevent that corruption. We may call our prisons isolation hospitals if we like, but if the prisoner is really isolated he goes mad—no punishment is so cruel as solitary confinement. Not being isolated, the prisoners infect and reinfect one another. The cumulative influence of these carefully maintained collections of diseased characters affects not only the prisoners but those who restrain them. It is held by some that the care of the helpless develops noble qualities in those who tend them. These theorists have failed to study the effect of such activity on warders, keepers, guards, and those who wait on and serve utter idiots and maniacs.


The elimination of diseased parts from our body politic should not be discussed as punishment but as an operation on the social body. One does not either “forgive” or “punish” an inflamed appendix but one does cut it out.

The same position may be taken in regard to the incurable idiot or maniac. If, to the best of our present knowledge, such cases are hopeless, why should we isolate and preserve the affected parts? Why should we not painlessly remove them? Affection, gratitude for previous services may be urged, but this attitude is based on the assumption that it is some pleasure or advantage to the ruined minds to live thus ignominiously.

Here is a case of a fine woman who has lived a good and fruitful life. She is affected with a progressive mental disorder, and for fifteen years two daughters are sacrificed to the unfruitful service of increasing idiocy, their lives crippled, wrecked.

But she is their mother, she has loved and served them, we protest. Yes, and what would any mother feel, if she could know it, to realize that she who loved them was now the means of slowly ruining her children?

In another instance we see a man once strong and intellectual, eminent in scholarship, honorable in service to society, now a paretic. Slowly he fails in physical and mental power, reaching the condition of a gross baby, a huge, brainless baby lying like a log in an unclean bed, while nurse and doctor wait for him—for it—to die. What is sacred in that dreadful ignominy? When intelligent consciousness is gone forever, the man is gone, and the body should be decently removed.

The record of a previously noble life is precisely what makes it sheer insult to allow death in pitiful degradation. We may not wish to “die with our boots on” but we may well prefer to die with our brains on.

In New York, some years ago, an elderly woman was suffering from a complication of diseases; recovery was impossible; she know that she must die; and her constant and terrible pain was such that she begged piteously for release.  She was attended by a devoted daughter and by a trained nurse, a sturdy Nova Scotian, rigidly religious.

The patient died somewhat sooner than was expected by the physician. The nurse testified that she had seen the daughter put something in her mother’s drinking glass. Careful inquiry ascertained that there was no inheritance to offer a “motive” for murder and that this mother and daughter had been attached and congenial friends, wholly devoted to each other. The inquest ignored the nurse’s testimony, and no charge, fortunately, was brought against the daughter.

More recently, in England, a man whose beloved little girl was in constant suffering from an incurable disease, after long daily and nightly care and tender nursing, relieved the child’s agony with a quick death. The judge, in charging the jury, pointed out how long and lovingly the poor father had nursed his child and urged upon them that, if he had allowed a dog in his possession to so linger in pain, he would have been liable to punishment for cruelty. The prisoner, and rightly, was not convicted.


Practical Germany has discussed a law allowing physicians to administer euthanasia in certain cases. It was not passed, the two principal objections being the chance of a safe variety of murder and the effect of the patient’s loss of confidence in his physician. That confidence is a valuable asset in the cure of disease. If a sick man felt that, if his doctor decided he could not recover, anesthesia would be promptly administered, it would certainly add fear to his other difficulties and jeopardize his chance of life.

No such power should be left to any individual, physician of other, though it might be advanced that no doctor would voluntarily shorten his “case.” Too many mistakes in diagnosis have been made, too many patients have been given up to die and rebelliously recovered, to permit of any one man governing such a decision.

But suitable legal methods may be devised by a civilized society. When the sufferer begs for release or when the mind is gone and the body going, as in a case where intestinal cancer is accompanied by senile dementia and when the attending physician gives his opinion that there is no hope, then an application to the Board of Health should be made.

That Board should promptly appoint a consulting committee, varying from case to case, to avoid possible collusion and including a lawyer as well as doctors for inquiry should be made in regard to possible motives for the sufferer’s death, among members of the family, and in regard to their attitude toward the patient.

If this committee recommends euthanasia, the Board of Health should issue a permit, and merciful sleep end hopeless misery. What rational objection can anyone make to such procedure?

There is the suggestion that sometimes doctors are all mistaken, and recovery is made after life has been despaired of.  That is of course true.

There might be a small percentage of error, even with careful consulting assistance. This error is present in all matters involving the human equation. It is too small to weigh equally with the mass of misery to be relieved. And it does not apply at all to those still able to decide for themselves.

Our love, our care, out vivid sympathy with human life should be applied most strongly at the other end. With eugenics and euthenics, care and education from infancy, better living conditions for everyone, all that can be done to safeguard and improve human life we should do as a matter of course.

But the dragging weight of the grossly unfit and dangerous could be lightened, with great advantage to the normal and progressive. The millions spent in restraining and maintaining social detritus should be available for the safeguarding and improving of better lives.

Instead of being hardened by such measures of release, we shall develop a refinement of tenderness which will shrink with horror at the thought of the suffering and waste we now calmly endure. Death is not an evil when it comes in the course of nature, and when it is administered legitimately it is far less than the evil of unnecessary anguish.

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Filed under Americas, Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, Illness and Old Age, Rights, Selections, The Modern Era


from The Principles of Psychology
from Is Life Worth Living?


The son of the eccentric American philosopher Henry James, Sr., who was influenced by Swedenborgianism and Fourierism, and the brother of Henry James, the eminent novelist and literary critic, William James became a major figure in both philosophy and psychology. In philosophy, he was one of the founders of the school known as Pragmatism; in psychology, he led the movement of functionalism. His childhood was characterized by irregular schooling, respect for opposing ideas (developed in discussions with his father at the family dinner table), and frequent travel. After an unsatisfying attempt to study art, he attended Harvard, where he studied chemistry, physiology, and medicine. While still in school, he served as assistant to the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon.

His health failing, James returned to medical school and in 1867–68 studied in Germany; he also read extensively in philosophy and experimental psychology. While in Germany, he experienced a breakdown and contemplated suicide. He received his M.D. in 1869, but was unable to practice as a result of an extended illness that kept him a semi-invalid and confined him to home until 1872. His recovery began with reading Charles Renouvier on free will: James decided that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” That year he began to teach physiology at Harvard. In 1878, he married and his health improved; it was from this point on that his original thinking began in earnest.

James published The Principles of Psychology in 1890; its scope grew to be far beyond its conception as a textbook of physiological psychology. In this work, he established a functional viewpoint, thus assimilating mental science to those biological disciplines which viewed thinking and knowledge as tools in the struggle for survival. James defended the idea of free will, yet outlined the influences of physical processes upon mental operations. In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), he viewed the existence of God as established by the record of religious experience, often occurring during times of crisis. Freedom of action is made possible by a looseness in the connection between past and future events, in a way analogous to Darwin’s notion of spontaneous variation. James’s Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, though delayed several years by further health problems, were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and became popular for their discussions of science and the religious experience.

Near the turn of the century, James turned to philosophy and formulated the philosophical method of Pragmatism. Building on the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, James argued that the meaning and veracity of all ideas are a function of the consequences that result from them. Pragmatism flowered, and James achieved great fame in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in England; it is often said that from James, “a new vitality flowed into the veins of American philosophers.” After several years of lecturing, teaching, and further writing though in deteriorating health, James died in New Hampshire in 1910.

In this selection from The Principles of Psychology, James argues that suicide for “positive” wholly altruistic motives is impossible, since one inevitably expects to be rewarded for the act. Suicides with “negative” motivations (e.g., fear, retreat) can be genuine, though suicidal frenzy is itself pathological. In the essay “Is Life Worth Living?” (1896), James outlines a way to help overcome the pessimism that leads to suicide. He argues that only a distrust of life can invalidate the value that endurance might bestow upon it; life is “what we make of it.”


William James, The Principles of PsychologyVol. 1. New York: Dover Publications, 1890, 1918, 1950, pp. 313-317. “Is Life Worth Living?” from The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York, London, and Bombay: Longmans Green, 1896, 1899, pp. 32-62.



A tolerably unanimous opinion ranges the different selves of which a man may be ‘seized and possessed,’ and the consequent different orders of his self-regard, in an hierarchical scale, with the bodily Self at the bottom, the spiritual Self at top, and the extracorporeal material selves and the various social selves between. Our merely natural self-seeking would lead us to aggrandize all these selves; we give up deliberately only those among them which we find we cannot keep. Our unselfishness is thus apt to be a ‘virtue of necessity’; and it is not without all show of reason that cynics quote the fable of the fox and the grapes in describing our progress therein. But this is the moral education of the race; and if we agree in the result that on the whole the selves we can keep are the intrinsically best, we need not complain of being led to the knowledge of their superior worth in such a tortuous way.

Of course this is not the only way in which we learn to subordinate our lower selves to our higher. A direct ethical judgment unquestionably also plays its part, and last, not least, we apply to our own persons judgments originally called forth by the acts of others.  It is one of the strangest laws of our nature that many things which we are well satisfied with in ourselves disgust us when seen in others.  With another man’s bodily ‘hoggishness’ hardly anyone has any sympathy;—almost as little with his cupidity, his social vanity and eagerness, his jealousy, his despotism, and his pride. Left absolutely to myself I should probably allow all these spontaneous tendencies to luxuriate in me unchecked, and it would be long before I formed a distinct notion of the order of their subordination. But having constantly to pass judgment of my associates, I come ere long to see, as Herr Horwicz says, my own lusts in the mirror of the lusts of others, and to think about them in a very different way from that in which I simply feel. Of course, the moral generalities which from childhood have been instilled into me accelerate enormously the advent of this reflective judgment on myself.

So it comes to pass that, as aforesaid, men have arranged the various selves which they may seek in an hierarchical scale according to their worth. A certain amount of bodily selfishness is required as a basis for all the other selves. But too much sensuality is despised, or at best condoned on account of the other qualities of the individual. The wider material selves are regarded as higher than the immediate body. He is esteemed a poor creature who is unable to forgo a little meat and drink and warmth and sleep for the sake of getting on in the world. The social self as a whole, again, ranks higher than the material self as a whole. We must care more for our honor, our friends, our human ties, than for a sound skin or wealth. And the spiritual self is so supremely precious that, rather than lose it, a man ought to be willing to give up friends and good fame, and property, and life itself.

In each kind of self, material, social, and spiritual, men distinguish between the immediate and actual, and the remote and potential, between the narrower and the wider view, to the detriment of the former and advantage of the latter. One must forego a present bodily enjoyment for the sake of one’s general health; one must abandon the dollar in the hand for the sake of the hundred dollars to come; one must make an enemy of his present interlocutor if thereby one makes friends of a more valued circle; one must go without learning and grace, and wit, the better to compass one’s soul’s salvation.

Of all these wider, more potential selves, the potential social self is the most interesting, by reason of certain apparent paradoxes to which it leads in conduct, and by reason of its connection with our moral and religious life. When for motives of honor and conscience I brave the condemnation of my own family, club, and ‘set’; when, as a protestant, I turn catholic; as a catholic, freethinker; as a ‘regular practitioner,’ homœopath, or what not, I am always inwardly strengthened in my course and steeled against the loss of my actual social self by the thought of other and better possible social judges than those whose verdict goes against me now. The ideal social self which I thus seek in appealing to their decision may be very remote: it may be represented as barely possible. I may not hope for its realization during my lifetime; I may even expect the future generations, which would approve me if they knew me, to know nothing about me when I am dead and gone. Yet still the emotion that beckons me on is indubitably the pursuit of an ideal social self, of a self that is at least worthy of approving recognition by the highest possible judging companion, if such companion there be. This self is the true, the intimate, the ultimate, the permanent Me which I seek. This judge is God, the Absolute Mind, the ‘Great Companion.’ We hear, in these days of scientific enlightenment, a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of prayer; and many reasons are given us why we should not pray, whilst others are given us why we should. But in all this very little is said of the reason why we do pray, which is simply that we cannot help praying. It seems probable that, in spite of all that ‘science’ may do to the contrary, men will continue to pray to the end of time, unless their mental nature changes in a manner which nothing we know should lead us to expect. The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a Self of the social sort, it yet can find its only adequate Socius in an ideal world. All progress in the social Self is the substitution of higher tribunals for lower; this ideal tribunal is the highest; and most men, either continually or occasionally, carry a reference to it in their breast. The humblest outcast on this earth can feel himself to be real and valid by means of this higher recognition. And, on the other hand, for most of us, a world with no such inner refuge when the outer social self failed and dropped from us would be the abyss of horror. I say ‘for most of us,’ because it is probable that individuals differ a good deal in the degree in which they are haunted by this sense of an ideal spectator. It is a much more essential part of the consciousness of some men than of others. Those who have the most of it are possibly the most religious men. But I am sure that even those who say they are altogether without it deceive themselves, and really have it in some degree. Only a non-gregarious animal could be completely without it. Probably no one can make sacrifices for ‘right,’ without to some degree personifying the principle of right for which the sacrifice is made, and expecting thanks from it. Complete social unselfishness, in other words, can hardly exist; complete social suicide hardly occur to a man’s mind. Even such texts as Job’s “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him,” or Marcus Aurelius’s “If gods hate me and my children, there is a reason for it,” can least of all be cited to prove the contrary.  For beyond all doubt Job revelled in the thought of Jehovah’s recognition of the worship after the slaying should have been done; and the Roman emperor felt sure the Absolute Reason would not be all indifferent to his acquiescence in the gods’ dislike. The old test of piety, “Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?” was probably never answered in the affirmative except by those who felt sure in their heart of hearts that God would ‘credit’ them with their willingness, and set more store by them thus if in His unfathomable scheme He had not damned them at all. All this about the impossibility of suicide is said on the supposition of positive motives. When possessed by the emotion of fear, however, we are in a negative state of mind; that is, our desire is limited to the mere banishing of something, without regard to what shall take its place. In this state of mind there can unquestionably be genuine thoughts, and genuine acts, of suicide, spiritual and social, as well as bodily. Anything, anything, at such times, so as to escape and not to be! But such conditions of suicidal frenzy are pathological in their nature and run dead against everything that is regular in the life of the Self in man.



WHEN Mr. Mallock’s book with this title appeared some fifteen years ago, the jocose answer that “it depends on the liver” had great currency in the newspapers. The answer which I propose to give to-night cannot be jocose. In the words of one of Shakespeare’s prologues,—

“I come no more to make you laugh; things now,
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe,”—

must be my theme. In the deepest heart of all of us there is a corner in which the ultimate mystery of things works sadly; and I know not what such an association as yours intends, not what you ask of those whom you invite to address you, unless it be to lead you from the surface-glamour of existence, and for an hour at least to make you heedless to the buzzing and jigging and vibration of small interests and excitements that form the tissue of our ordinary consciousness. Without further explanation or apology, then, I ask you to join me in turning an attention, commonly too unwilling, to the profounder bass-note of life. Let us search the lonely depths for an hour together, and see what answers in the last folds and recesses of things our question may find.

“It ends soon, and never more can be,” “Lo, you are free to end it when you will,”—these verses flow truthfully from the melancholy Thomson’s pen, and are in truth a consolation for all to whom, as to him, the world is far more like a steady den of fear than a continual fountain of delight. That life is not worth living the whole army of suicides declare,—an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, follows the sun round the world and never terminates. We, too, as we sit here in our comfort, must ‘ponder these things’ also, for we are of one substance with these suicides, and their life is the life we share. The plainest intellectual integrity,—nay, more, the simplest manliness and honor, forbid us to forget their case.

To come immediately to the heart of my theme, then, what I propose is to imagine ourselves reasoning with a fellow-mortal who is on such terms with life that the only comfort left him is to brood on the assurance, “You may end it when you will.” What reasons can we plead that may render such a brother (or sister) willing to take up the burden again? Ordinary Christians, reasoning with would-be suicides, have little to offer them beyond the usual negative, “Thou shalt not.” God alone is master of life and death, they say, and it is a blasphemous act to anticipate his absolving hand. But can we find nothing richer or more positive than this, no reflections to urge whereby the suicide may actually see, and in all sad seriousness feel, that in spite of adverse appearances even for him life is still worth living? There are suicides and suicides (in the United States about three thousand of them every year), and I must frankly confess that with perhaps the majority of these my suggestions are impotent to deal. Where suicide is the result of insanity or sudden frenzied impulse, reflection is impotent to arrest its headway: and cases like these belong to the ultimate mystery of evil, concerning which I can only offer considerations tending toward religious patience at the end of this hour. My task, let me say now, is practically narrow, and my words are to deal only with that metaphysical tedium vitœ which is peculiar to reflecting men. Most of you are devoted, for good or ill, to the reflective life. Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt in your own persons the skepticism and unreality that too much grubbing in the abstract roots of things will breed. This is, indeed, one of the regular fruits of the over-studious career. Too much questioning and too little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much sensualism does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism and the nightmare or suicidal view of life. But to the diseases which reflection breeds, still further reflection can oppose effective remedies; and it is of the melancholy and Weltschmerz bred of reflection that I now proceed to speak.

Let me say, immediately, that my final appeal is to nothing more recondite than religious faith. So far as my argument is to be destructive, it will consist in nothing more than the sweeping away of certain views that often keep the springs of religious faith compressed; and so far as it is to be constructive, it will consist in holding up to the light of day certain considerations calculated to let loose these springs in a normal, natural way. Pessimism is essentially a religious disease. In the form of it to which you are most liable, it consists in nothing but a religious demand to which there comes no normal religious reply.

We are familiar enough in this community with the spectacle of persons exulting in their emancipation from belief in the God of their ancestral Calvinism,—him who made the garden and the serpent, and preappointed the eternal fires of hell. Some of them have found humaner gods to worship, others are simply converts from all theology; but, both alike, they assure us that to have got rid of the sophistication of thinking they could feel any reverence or duty toward that impossible idol gave a tremendous happiness to their souls. Now, to make an idol of the spirit of nature, and worship it, also leads to sophistication; and in souls that are religious and would also be scientific the sophistication breeds a philosophical melancholy, from which the first natural step of escape is the denial of the idol; and with the downfall of the idol, whatever lack of positive joyousness may remain, there comes also the downfall of the whimpering and cowering mood. With evil simply taken as such, men can make short work, for their relations with it then are only practical. It looms up no longer so spectrally, it loses all its haunting and perplexing significance, as soon as the mind attacks the instances of it singly, and ceases to worry about their derivation from the ‘one and only Power.’

Here, then, on this stage of mere emancipation from monistic superstition, the would-be suicide may already get encouraging answers to his question about the worth of life. There are in most men instinctive springs of vitality that respond healthily when the burden of metaphysical and infinite responsibility rolls off. The certainty that you now may step out of life whenever you please, and that to do so is not blasphemous or monstrous, is itself an immense relief.  The thought of suicide is now no longer a guilty challenge and obsession.

“This little life is all we must endure;
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,”—

says Thomson; adding, “I ponder these thoughts, and they comfort me.” Meanwhile we can always stand it for twenty-four hours longer, if only to see what to-morrow’s newspaper will contain, or what the next postman will bring.

But far deeper forces than this mere vital curiosity are arousable, even in the pessimistically-tending mind; for where the loving and admiring impulses are dead, the hating and fighting impulses will still respond to fit appeals. This evil which we feel so deeply is something that we can also help to overthrow; for its sources, now that no ‘Substance’ or ‘Spirit’ is behind them, are finite, and we can deal with each of them in turn. It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.

What are our woes and sufferance compared with these? Does not the recital of such a fight so obstinately waged against such odds fill us with resolution against our petty powers of darkness,—machine politicians, spoilsmen, and the rest? Life is worth living, no matter what it bring, if only such combats may be carried to successful terminations and one’s heel set on the tyrant’s throat. To the suicide, then, in his supposed world of multifarious and immoral nature, you can appeal—and appeal in the name of the very evils that make his heart sick there—to wait and see his part of the battle out. And the consent to live on, which you ask of him under these circumstances, is not the sophistical ‘resignation’ which devotees of cowering religious preach: it is not resignation in the sense of licking a despotic Deity’s hand. It is, on the contrary, a resignation based on manliness and pride. So long as your would-be suicide leaves an evil of his own unremedied, so long he has strictly no concern with evil in the abstract and at large. The submission which you demand of your self to the general fact of evil in the world, your apparent acquiescence in it, is here nothing but the conviction that evil at large is none of your business until your business with your private particular evils is liquidated and settled up. A challenge of this sort, with proper designation of detail, is one that need only be made to be accepted by men whose normal instincts are not decayed; and your reflective would-be suicide may easily be moved by it to face life with a certain interest again. The sentiment of honor is a very penetrating thing. When you and I, for instance, realize how many innocent beasts have had to suffer in cattle-cars and slaughter-pens and lay down their lives that we might grow up, all fattened and clad, to sit together here in comfort and carry on this discourse, it does, indeed, put our relation to the universe in a more solemn light. “Does not,” as a young Amherst philosopher (Xenos Clark, now dead) once wrote, “the acceptance of a happy life upon such terms involves a point of honor?” Are we not bound to take some suffering upon ourselves, to do some self-denying service with our lives, in return for all those lives upon which ours are built? To hear this question is to answer it in but one possible way, if one have a normally constituted heart.

Thus, then, we see that mere instinctive curiosity, pugnacity, and honor may make life on a purely naturalistic basis seem worth living from day to day to men who have cast away all metaphysics in order to get rid of hypochondria, but who are resolved to owe nothing as yet to religion and its more positive gifts. A poor half-way stage, some of you may be inclined to say; but at least you must grant it to be an honest stage; and no man should dare to speak meanly of these instincts which are our nature’s best equipment, and to which religion herself must in the last resort address her own peculiar appeals.

Now, when I speak of trusting our religious demands, just what do I mean by ‘trusting’? Is the word to carry with it license to define in detail an invisible world, and to anathematize and excommunicate those whose trust is different? Certainly not! Our faculties of belief were not primarily given us to make orthodoxies and heresies withal; they were given us to live by. And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. It is a fact of human nature, that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without a single dogma or definition. The bare assurance that this natural order is not ultimate but a mere sign or vision, the external staging of a many-storied universe, in which spiritual forces have the last word and are eternal,—this bare assurance is to such men enough to make life seem worth living in spite of every contrary presumption suggested by its circumstances on the natural plane. Destroy this inner assurance, however, vague as it is, and all the light and radiance of existence is extinguished for these persons at a stroke. Often enough the wild-eyed look at life—the suicidal mood—will then set in.

Now turn from this to the life of man. In the dog’s life we see the world invisible to him because we live in both worlds. In human life, although we only see our world, and his within it, yet encompassing both these worlds a still wider world may be there, as unseen by us as our world is by him; and to believe in that world may be the most essential function that our lives in this world have to perform. But “may be! may be!” one now hears the positivist contemptuously exclaim; “what use can a scientific life have for maybes?” Well, I reply, the ‘scientific’ life itself has much to do with maybes, and human life at large has everything to do with them. So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe; not a service, not a sally of generosity, not a scientific exploration or experiment or textbook, that may not be a mistake. It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In such a case (and it belongs to an enormous class), the part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. You make one or the other of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust,—both universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before you contributed your act.

Now, it appears to me that the question whether life is worth living is subject to conditions logically much like these. It does, indeed, depend on you the liver. If you surrender to the nightmare view and crown the evil edifice by your own suicide, you have indeed made a picture totally black. Pessimism, completed by your act, is true beyond a doubt, so far as your world goes. Your mistrust of life has removed whatever worth your own enduring existence might have given to it; and now, throughout the whole sphere of possible influence of that existence, the mistrust has proved itself to have had divining power. But suppose, on the other hand, that instead of giving way to the nightmare view you cling to it that this world is not the ultimatum. Suppose you find yourself a very well-spring, as Wordsworth says, of—

“Zeal, and the virtue to exist by faith
As soldiers live by courage; as, by strength
Of heart, the sailor fights with roaring seas.”

Suppose, however thickly evils crowd upon you, that your unconquerable subjectivity proves to be their match, and that you find a more wonderful joy than any passive pleasure can bring in trusting ever in the larger whole. Have you not now made life worth living on these terms? What sort of a thing would life really be, with your qualities ready for a tussle with it, if it only brought fair weather and gave these higher faculties of yours no scope? Please remember that optimism and pessimism are definitions of the world, and that our own reactions on the world, small as they are in bulk, and necessarily help to determine the definition. They may even be the decisive elements in determining the definition. A large mass can have its unstable equilibrium overturned by the addition of a feather’s weight; a long phrase may have its sense reversed by the addition of the three letters n-o-t. This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it, from the moral point of view, and we are determined to make it from that point of view, so far as we have anything to do with it, a success.

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV, greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.”

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Filed under Americas, Christianity, Illness and Old Age, James, William, Selections, The Modern Era, Value of Life


from Is Suicide a Sin? Col. Ingersoll’s Reply to his Critics


Robert Green Ingersoll, raised in New England as the son of a Congregational minister, became a noted agnostic lecturer. The family moved often because of his father’s unpopularity for his liberal views; when young Ingersoll was nine, his father was prohibited from preaching altogether. Ingersoll’s family settled in Illinois, where he and his brother became prominent trial lawyers. During the Civil War, Ingersoll led a volunteer Union regiment; he was captured along with many of his men, but was paroled and discharged in 1863.

Attacking popular Christian beliefs and supporting the views of Darwin and Huxley, Ingersoll became known as “the great agnostic”—the word was newly coined—a title he proudly claimed. While his radical views on topics such as religion and women’s suffrage limited his political success, he did serve as attorney general of Illinois from 1867–69, and was an influential spokesman for various Republican candidates.

Ingersoll’s lectures on religion, science, literature, politics, and history became famous, and the legendary force of his oratory won him many patrons, clients, and lecture opportunities. In 1879, he moved to Washington with hopes of expanding his law practice and finding a larger audience for his views. His religious thinking during this time, highly critical of conventional Christian beliefs such as the existence of God and immortality, was expressed in lectures including “Some Mistakes of Moses” (1879), “Why I am an Agnostic” (1896), and “Superstition” (1898). He continued to insist, however, that he neither affirmed nor denied the existence of God—rather, he said, “I wait.”

In this reply to his critics, originally published in the New York Evening Telegram of 1892, addressing the question of whether suicide is a sin, Ingersoll affirms man’s right to kill himself and dismisses religious arguments to the contrary. Suicide is not cowardly; it can be the result of a rational decision. In fact, Ingersoll argues, suicide lies at the very heart of Christianity: “If Christ were God,” Ingersoll insists, he could have protected himself from his assailants, and since he did not do so, “he consented to his own death and was guilty of suicide.” Christ could have made himself known; he could have avoided pain; he could have “changed the crucifixion to a joy.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin? Colonel Ingersoll’s Reply to His Critics,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: Dresden Publishing Co., C. P. Farrell, 1895, 1903, Vol. 7, pp. 388-408. Also available from the Secular Web Library.


In the article written by me about suicide the ground was taken that “under many circumstances a man has the right to kill himself.”

This has been attacked with great fury by clergymen, editors and the writers of letters. These people contend that the right of self-destruction does not and cannot exist. They insist that life is the gift of God, and that he only has the right to end the days of men; that it is our duty to bear the sorrows that he sends with grateful patience. Some have denounced suicide as the worst of crimes — worse than the murder of another.

The first question, then, is:
Has a man under any circumstances the right to kill himself?

A man is being slowly devoured by a cancer — his agony is intense — his suffering all that nerves can feel. His life is slowly being taken. Is this the work of the good God? Did the compassionate God create the cancer so that it might feed on the quivering flesh of this victim?

This man, suffering agonies beyond the imagination to conceive, is of no use to himself. His life is but a succession of pangs. He is of no use to his wife, his children, his friends or society. Day after day he is rendered unconscious by drugs that numb the nerves and put the brain to sleep.

Has he the right to render himself unconscious? Is it proper for him to take refuge in sleep?

If there be a good God I cannot believe that he takes pleasure in the sufferings of men — that he gloats over the agonies of his children. If there be a good God, he will, to the extent of his power, lessen the evils of life.

So I insist that the man being eaten by the cancer — a burden to himself and others, useless in every way — has the right to end his pain and pass through happy sleep to dreamless rest.

But those who have answered me would say to this man: “It is your duty to be devoured. The good God wishes you to suffer. Your life is the gift of God. You hold it in trust and you have no right to end it. The cancer is the creation of God and it is your duty to furnish it with food.”

Take another case: A man is on a burning ship, the crew and the rest of the passengers have escaped — gone in the lifeboats — and he is left alone. In the wide horizon there is no sail, no sign of help. He cannot swim. If he leaps into the sea he drowns, if he remains on the ship he burns. In any event he can live but a few moments.

Those who have answered me, those who insist that under no circumstances a man has the right to take his life, would say to this man on the deck, “Remain where you are. It is the desire of your loving, heavenly Father that you be clothed in flame — that you slowly roast — that your eyes be scorched to blindness and that you die insane with pain, your life is not your own, only the agony is yours.

I would say to this man: Do as you wish. If you prefer drowning to burning, leap into the sea. Between inevitable evils you have the right of choice. You can help no one, not even God, by allowing yourself to be burned, and you can injure no one, not even God, by choosing the easier death.

Let us suppose another case:

A man has been captured by savages in Central Africa. He is about to be tortured to death. His captors are going to thrust splinters of pine into his flesh and then set them on fire. He watches them as they make the preparations. He knows what they are about to do and what he is about to suffer. There is no hope of rescue, of help. He has a vial of poison. He knows that he can take it and in one moment pass beyond their power, leaving to them only the dead body.

Is this man under obligation to keep his life because God gave it, until the savages by torture take it? Are the savages the agents of the good God? Are they the servants of the Infinite? Is it the duty of this man to allow them to wrap his body in a garment of flame? Has he no right to defend himself? Is it the will of God that he die by torture? What would any man of ordinary intelligence do in a case like this? Is there room for discussion?

If the man took the poison, shortened his life a few moments, escaped the tortures of the savages, is it possible that he would in another world be tortured forever by an infinite savage?

Suppose another case: In the good old days, when the Inquisition flourished, when men loved their enemies and murdered their friends, many frightful and ingenious ways were devised to touch the nerves of pain.

Those who loved God, who had been “born twice,” would take a fellow-man who had been convicted of “heresy,” lay him upon the floor of a dungeon, secure his arms and legs with chains, fasten him to the earth so that he could not move, put an iron vessel, the opening downward, on his stomach, place in the vessel several rats, then tie it securely to his body. Then these worshipers of God would wait until the rats, seeking food and liberty, would gnaw through the body of the victim.

Now, if a man about to be subjected to this torture, had within his hand a dagger, would it excite the wrath of the “good God,” if with one quick stroke he found the protection of death?

To this question there can be but one answer.

In the cases I have supposed it seems to me that each person would have the right to destroy himself. It does not seem possible that the man was under obligation to be devoured by a cancer; to remain upon the ship and perish in flame; to throw away the poison and be tortured to death by savages; to drop the dagger and endure the “mercies” of the church.

If, in the cases I have supposed, men would have the right to take their lives, then I was right when I said that “under many circumstances a man has a right to kill himself.”

Second. — I denied that persons who killed themselves were physical cowards. They may lack moral courage; they may exaggerate their misfortunes, lose the sense of proportion, but the man who plunges the dagger in his heart, who sends the bullet through his brain, who leaps from some roof and dashes himself against the stones beneath, is not and cannot be a physical coward.

The basis of cowardice is the fear of injury or the fear of death, and when that fear is not only gone, but in its place is the desire to die, no matter by what means, it is impossible that cowardice should exist. The suicide wants the very thing that a coward fears. He seeks the very thing that cowardice endeavors to escape. So, the man, forced to a choice of evils, choosing the less is not a coward, but a reasonable man.

It must be admitted that the suicide is honest with himself. He is to bear the injury; if it be one. Certainly there is no hypocrisy, and just as certainly there is no physical cowardice.

Is the man who takes morphine rather than be eaten to death by a cancer a coward?

Is the man who leaps into the sea rather than be burned a coward? Is the man that takes poison rather than be tortured to death by savages or “Christians” a coward?

Third. — I also took the position that some suicides were sane; that they acted on their best judgment, and that they were in full possession of their minds. Now, if under some circumstances, a man has the right to take his life, and, if, under such circumstances, he does take his life, then it cannot be said that he was insane.

Most of the persons who have tried to answer me have taken the ground that suicide is not only a crime, but some of them have said that it is the greatest of crimes. Now, if it be a crime, then the suicide must have been sane. So all persons who denounce the suicide as a criminal admit that he was sane. Under the law, an insane person is incapable of committing a crime. All the clergymen who have answered me, and who have passionately asserted that suicide is a crime, have by that assertion admitted that those who killed themselves were sane.

They agree with me, and not only admit, but assert that “some who have committed suicide were sane and in the full possession of their minds.”

It seems to me that these three propositions have been demonstrated to be true: First, that under some circumstances a man has the right to take his life; second, that the man who commits suicide is not a physical coward, and, third, that some who have committed suicide were at the time sane and in full possession of their minds.

Fourth. — I insisted, and still insist, that suicide was and is the foundation of the Christian religion. I still insist that if Christ were God he had the power to protect himself without injuring his assailants — that having that power it was his duty to use it, and that failing to use it he consented to his own death and was guilty of suicide.

To this the clergy answer that it was self-sacrifice for the redemption of man, that he made an atonement for the sins of believers. These ideas about redemption and atonement are born of a belief in the “fall of man, on account of the sins of our first “parents,” and of the declaration that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” The foundation has crumbled. No intelligent person now believes in the “fall of man” — that our first parents were perfect, and that their descendants grew worse and worse, at least until the coming of Christ.

Intelligent men now believe that ages and ages before the dawn of history, man was a poor, naked, cruel, ignorant and degraded savage, whose language consisted of a few sounds of terror, of hatred and delight; that he devoured his fellow-man, having all the vices, but not all the virtues of the beasts; that the journey from the den to the home, the palace, has been long and painful, through many centuries of suffering, of cruelty and war; through many ages of discovery, invention, self-sacrifice and thought.

Redemption and atonement are left without a fact on which to rest. The idea that an infinite God, creator of all worlds, came to this grain of sand, learned the trade of a carpenter, discussed with Pharisees and scribes, and allowed a few infuriated Hebrews to put him to death that he might atone for the sins of men and redeem a few believers from the consequences of his own wrath, can find no lodgment in a good and natural brain.

In no mythology can anything more monstrously unbelievable be. But if Christ were a man and attacked the religion of his times because it was cruel and absurd; if he endeavored to found a religion of kindness, of good deeds, to take the place of heartlessness and ceremony, and if, rather than to deny what he believed to be right and true, he suffered death, then he was a noble man — a benefactor of his race. But if he were God there was no need of this. The Jews did not wish to kill God. If he had only made himself known all knees would have touched the ground. If he were God it required no heroism to die. He knew that what we call death is but the opening of the gates of eternal life. If he were God there was no self-sacrifice. He had no need to suffer pain. He could have changed the crucifixion to a joy.

Even the editors of religious weeklies see that there is no escape from these conclusions — from these arguments — and so, instead of attacking the arguments, they attack the man who makes them.

Fifth. — I denounced the law of New York that makes an attempt to commit suicide a crime.

It seems to me that one who has suffered so much that he passionately longs for death, should be pitied, instead of punished — helped rather than imprisoned.

A despairing woman who had vainly sought for leave to toil, a woman without home, without friends, without bread, with clasped hands, with tear-filled eyes, with broken words of prayer, in the darkness of night leaps from the dock, hoping, longing for the tearless sleep of death. She is rescued by a kind, courageous man, handed over to the authorities, indicted, tried, convicted. clothed in a convict’s garb and locked in a felon’s cell.

To me this law seems barbarous and absurd, a law that only savages would enforce.

Sixth. — In this discussion a curious thing has happened. For several centuries the clergy have declared that while infidelity is a very good thing to live by, it is a bad support, a wretched consolation, in the hour of death. They have in spite of the truth, declared that all the great unbelievers died trembling with fear, asking God for mercy, surrounded by fiends, in the torments of despair. Think of the thousands and thousands of clergymen who have described the last agonies of Voltaire, who died as peacefully as a happy child smilingly passes from play to slumber; the final anguish of Hume, who fell into his last sleep as serenely as a river, running between green and shaded banks, reaches the sea; the despair of Thomas Paine, one of the bravest, one of the noblest men, who met the night of death untroubled as a star that meets the morning.

At the same time these ministers admitted that the average murderer could meet death on the scaffold with perfect serenity, and could smilingly ask the people who had gathered to see him killed to meet him in heaven.

But the honest man who had expressed his honest thoughts against the creed of the church in power could not die in peace. God would see to it that his last moments should be filled with the insanity of fear — that with his last breath he should utter the shriek of remorse, the cry for pardon.

This has all changed, and now the clergy, in their sermons answering me, declare that the atheists, the freethinkers, have no fear of death — that to avoid some little annoyance, a passing inconvenience, they gladly and cheerfully put out the light of life. It is now said that infidels believe that death is the end — that it is a dreamless sleep — that it is without pain — that therefore they have no fear, care nothing for gods, or heavens or hells, nothing for the threats of the pulpit, nothing for the day of judgment, and that when life becomes a burden they carelessly throw it down.

The infidels are so afraid of death that they commit suicide.

This certainly is a great change, and I congratulate myself on having forced the clergy to contradict themselves.

Seventh. — The clergy take the position that the atheist, the unbeliever, has no standard of morality — that he can have no real conception of right and wrong. They are of the opinion that it is impossible for one to be moral or good unless he believes in some Being far above himself.

In this connection we might ask how God can be moral or good unless he believes in some Being superior to himself?

What is morality? It is the best thing to do under the circumstances. What is the best thing to do under the circumstances? That which will increase the sum of human happiness — or lessen it the least. Happiness in its highest, noblest form is the only good; that which increases or preserves or creates happiness is moral — that which decreases it, or puts it in peril, is immoral.

It is not hard for an atheist — for an unbeliever — to keep his hands out of the fire. He knows that burning his hands will not increase his well-being, and he is moral enough to keep them out of the flames.

So it may be said that each man acts according to his intelligence — so far as where he considers his own good is concerned. Sometimes he is swayed by passion, by prejudice, by ignorance — but when he is really intelligent, master of himself, he docs what he believes is best for him. If he is intelligent enough he knows that what is really good for him is good for others — for all the world.

It is impossible for me to see why any belief in the supernatural is necessary to have a keen perception of right and wrong. Every man who has the capacity to suffer and enjoy, and has imagination enough to give the same capacity to others, has within himself the natural basis of all morality. The idea of morality was born here, in this world, of the experience, the intelligence of mankind. Morality is not of supernatural origin. It did not fall from the clouds, and it needs no belief in the supernatural, no supernatural promises or threats, no supernatural heavens or hells to give it force and life. Subjects who are governed by the threats and promises of a king are merely slaves. They are not governed by the ideal, by noble views of right and wrong. They are obedient cowards, controlled by fear, or beggars governed by rewards — by alms.

Right and wrong exist in the nature of things. Murder was just as criminal before as after the promulgation of the Ten Commandments.

Eighth. — Many of the clergy, some editors and some writers of letters who have answered me, have said that suicide is the worst of crimes — that a man had better murder somebody else than himself. One clergyman gives as a reason for this statement that the suicide dies in an act of sin, and therefore he had better kill another person. Probably he would commit a less crime if he would murder his wife or mother.

I do not see that it is any worse to die than to live in sin. To say that it is not as wicked to murder another as yourself seems absurd. The man about to kill himself wishes to die. Why is it better for him to kill another man, who wishes to live?

To my mind it seems clear that you had better injure yourself than another. Better be a spendthrift than a thief. Better throw away your own money than steal the money of another — better kill yourself if you wish to die than murder one whose life is full of joy.

The clergy tell us that God is everywhere, and that it is one of the greatest possible crimes to rush into his presence. It is wonderful how much they know about God and how little about their fellow men. Wonderful the amount of their information about other worlds and how limited their knowledge is of this.

There may or may not be an infinite Being. I neither affirm nor deny. I am honest enough to say that I do not know. I am candid enough to admit that the question is beyond the limitations of my mind. Yet I think I know as much on that subject as any human being knows or ever knew, and that is — nothing. I do not say that there is not another world, another life; neither do I say that there is. I say that I do not know. It seems to me that every sane and honest man must say the same. But if there is an infinitely good God and another world, then the infinitely good God will be just as good to us in that world as he is in this. If this infinitely good God loves his children in this world, he will love them in another. If he loves a man when he is alive, he will not hate him the instant he is dead.

If we are the children of an infinitely wise and powerful God, he knew exactly what we would do — the temptations that we could and could not withstand — knew exactly the effect that everything would have upon us, knew under what circumstances we would take our lives — and produced such circumstances himself. It is perfectly apparent that there are many people incapable by nature of bearing the burdens of life, incapable of preserving their mental poise in stress and strain of disaster, disease and loss, and who by failure, by misfortune and want, are driven to despair and insanity, in whose darkened minds there comes like a flash of lightning in the night, the thought of death, a thought so strong, so vivid, that all fear is lost, all ties broken, all duties, all obligations, all hopes forgotten, and naught remains except a fierce and wild desire to die. Thousands and thousands become moody, melancholy, brood upon loss of money, of position, of friends, until reason abdicates and frenzy takes possession of the soul. If there be an infinitely wise and powerful God, all this was known to him from the beginning. and he so created things, established relations, put in operation causes and effects, that all that has happened was the necessary result of his own acts.

Ninth. — Nearly all who have tried to answer what I said have been exceedingly careful to misquote me, and then answer something that I never uttered. They have declared that I have advised people who were in trouble, somewhat annoyed, to kill themselves; that I have told men who have lost their money, who had failed in business, who were not good in health, to kill themselves at once, without taking into consideration any duty that they owed to wives, children, friends, or society.

No man has a right to leave his wife to fight the battle alone if he is able to help. No man has a right to desert his children if he can possibly be of use. As long as he can add to the comfort of those he loves, as long as he can stand between wife and misery, between child and want, as long as he can be of any use, it is his duty to remain.

I believe in the cheerful view, in looking at the sunny side of things, in bearing with fortitude the evils of life, in struggling against adversity, in finding the fuel of laughter even in disaster, in having confidence in to-morrow, in finding the pearl of joy among the flints and shards, and in changing by the alchemy of patience even evil things to good. I believe in the gospel of cheerfulness, of courage and good nature.

Of the future I have no fear. My fate is the fate of the world — of all that live. My anxieties are about this life, this world. About the phantoms called gods and their impossible hells, I have no care, no fear.

The existence of God I neither affirm nor deny, I wait. The immortality of the soul I neither affirm nor deny. I hope — hope for all of the children of men. I have never denied the existence of another world, nor the immortality of the soul. For many years I have said that the idea of immortality, that like a sea has ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death.

What I deny is the immortality of pain, the eternity of torture.

After all, the instinct of self-preservation is strong. People do not kill themselves on the advice of friends or enemies. All wish to be happy, to enjoy life; all wish for food and roof and raiment, for friends, and as long as life gives joy, the idea of self-destruction never enters the human mind.

The oppressors, the tyrants, those who trample on the rights of others, the robbers of the poor, those who put wages below the living point, the ministers who make people insane by preaching the dogma of eternal pain; these are the men who drive the weak, the suffering and the helpless down to death.

It will not do to say that God has appointed a time for each to die. Of this there is, and there can be, no evidence. There is no evidence that any god takes any interest in the affairs of men — that any sides with the right or helps the weak, protects the innocent or rescues the oppressed. Even the clergy admit that their God, through all ages, has allowed his friends, his worshipers, to be imprisoned, tortured and murdered by his enemies. Such is the protection of God. Billions of prayers have been uttered; has one been answered? Who sends plague, pestilence and famine? Who bids the earthquake devour and the volcano to overwhelm?

Tenth. — Again, I say that it is wonderful to me that so many men, so many women endure and carry their burdens to the natural end; that so many, in spite of “age, ache and penury,” guard with trembling hands the spark of life; that prisoners for life toil and suffer to the last; that the helpless wretches in poorhouses and asylums cling to life; that the exiles in Siberia, loaded with chains, scarred with the knout, live on; that the incurables. whose every breath is a pang, and for whom the future has only pain, should fear the merciful touch and clasp of death.

It is but a few steps at most from the cradle to the grave: a short journey. The suicide hastens, shortens the path, loses the afternoon, the twilight, the dusk of life’s day; loses what he does not want, what he cannot bear. In the tempest of despair, in the blind fury of madness, or in the calm of thought and choice, the beleaguered soul finds the serenity of death.

Let us leave the dead where nature leaves them. We know nothing of any realm that lies beyond the horizon of the known, beyond the end of life. Let us be honest with ourselves and others. Let us pity the suffering, the despairing, the men and women hunted and pursued by grief and shame, by misery and want, by chance and fate until their only friend is death.

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Filed under Americas, Illness and Old Age, Ingersoll, Robert, Rights, Selections, The Modern Era

(c. 1745-1797)

from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself


Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo, describes himself as born to a relatively prosperous, slave-owning family in the region east of the city of Onitsha, Nigeria, where ownership of slaves and slave-raiding were local practice at the time. At the age of about 10 or 11, Equiano was kidnapped along with his sister by local raiders and sold into slavery. His first owners were an African family located at some distance from his home, but still within the same linguistic sphere; he was then sold and resold several times until taken for transport on a British slave ship to Barbados and then to Virginia. Sold in Virginia to Lieutenant Michael Pascal of the Royal Navy, Equiano was renamed Gustavus Vassa (after the 16th- century Swedish king), and served in the “French and Indian” Seven Year’s War in a celebrated naval encounter in Gibraltar in 1759. He was acquired by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, who helped him purchase his freedom in 1766. Once emancipated, he traveled to the Arctic with the Phipps expeditions of 1772–-73 in search of a northwest passage, and around the Mediterranean in the service of an English gentleman. He lived among the Miskito Indians of Central America for six months, and later settled in London. Some recent voices have disputed Equiano’s account of his birth in Africa, arguing that he was born in South Carolina and adapted others’ writings or recollections of the Middle Passage as the source of his personal narrative; most scholars accept Equiano’s account of his African origins as genuine.

After his emancipation, Equiano became an ardent abolitionist. One of very few Africans who emerged from slavery and became literate in the languages of the West, Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), an autobiographical account of his life, including his early childhood and recollections of Igbo culture in Africa, his kidnapping, enslavement, and sale to British slavers, and his transport into slavery in the New World that is the focus of the selection here. Speculative criticism both at the time and recently has challenged the authenticity of this document, insisting, as one early commentator did, that “it is not improbable that some English writer has assisted him in the compilement, or, at least, the correction of his book.” Nevertheless, the book, importantly subtitled “Written by Himself,” was well received and reviewed. It sold over 5,000 copies and became a major force in bringing about the Abolition Act (March 1807) and Emancipation Bill (July 1833). Equiano’s work also served as one of the first records to shape the experiences of the black African diaspora during slavery and afterward. For the remainder of his life, Equiano continued to lecture against the slave trade; he married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, in 1792, and they had two daughters in the years before he died.

Equiano’s full work allows the reader to contrast the comparatively humane African forms of slavery with the relentlessly cruel and barbarous treatment accorded slaves in transport by their European captors. The passage included here begins after he has been sold and resold by African slavers, but is about to be loaded aboard ship for transport via the Middle Passage to the New World. Equiano describes his own impulses toward suicide, if he could have freed himself to do so, and attempts by his fellow slaves to jump overboard—attempts against which their captors were always on guard. Indeed, slavers often strung nets along the sides of the ship to prevent leaps into the water; they retrieved and sometimes executed and then mutilated those who did succeed in reaching the water, since the slavers were convinced, according to one historian of the period, that Africans believed mutilation would end the cycle of rebirth that otherwise would carry a suicide back home to Africa and his family. Wilfred Samuels says of Equiano’s thoughts of suicide, “while suicide might have been a means of escaping the living hellhole that threatened to engulf him, his sacred traditions taught that committing suicide would sever him eternally from his ancestral roots.” Of those slaves who did commit suicide, writes  illiam Piersen, since they believed they would return to their former African homelands in the next life, “their deaths mark one of the world’s greatest, but most overlooked, religious martyrdoms.”

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Available online at Project Gutenberg #15399. Material in introduction from G. I Jones, “Olaudah Equiano of the Niger Ibo,” chapter 2 in Philip D. Curtin, Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967, pp. 92-96; and from Wilfred D. Samuels, ed., The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Coral Gables, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., 1989, and from William D. Pierson, From Africa to America: African American History from the Colonial Era to the Early Republic, 1526–1790. New York: Twayne, Simon and Schuster, 1996, pp. 31-32.


The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slaveship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo.  These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe, nor the then feelings of my mind.  When I was carried on board I was immediately handled, and tossed up, to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had got into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.  Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, which was very different from any I had ever heard, united to confirm me in this belief.  Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.  When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.  When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain.  I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair.  They told me I was not; and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine-glass; but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand.  One of the blacks therefore took it from him, and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced having never tasted any such liquor before.  Soon after this, the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair.  I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery, in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo.  I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing.  I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely.  I had never experienced any thing of this kind before; and although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it; yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side; but I could not; and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water: and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating.  This indeed was often the case with myself.  In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind.  I inquired of them what was to be done with us.  They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them.  I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate: but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves.  One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged[1] so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute.  This made me fear these people the more; and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the manner.  I could not help expressing my fears and apprehensions to some of my countrymen: I asked them if these people had no country, but lived in this hollow place the ship?  They told me they did not, but came from a distant one.  “Then,” said I, “how comes it in all our country we never heard of them?”  They told me, because they lived so very far off.  I then asked, where were their women?  Had they any like themselves?  I was told they had.  “And why,” said I, “do we not see them?”  they answered, because they were left behind.  I asked how the vessel could go?  They told me they could not tell; but that there were cloth put upon the masts by the help of the ropes I saw, and then the vessel went on; and the white men had some spell or magic they put in the water when they liked in order to stop the vessel.  I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really though they were spirits.  I therefore wished much to be from amongst them, for I expected they would sacrifice me: but my wishes were vain: for we were so quartered that it was impossible for any of us to make our escape.  While we staid on the coast I was mostly on deck; and one day, to my great astonishment, I saw one of these vessels coming in with the sails up.  As soon as the whites saw it, they gave a great shout, at which we were amazed: and the more so as the vessel appeared larger by approaching nearer.  At last she came to an anchor in my sight, and when the anchor was let go, I and my countrymen who saw it were lost in astonishment to observe the vessel stop; and were now convinced it was done by magic.  Soon after this the other ship got her boats out, and they came on board of us, and the people of both ships seemed very glad to see each other.  Several of the strangers also shook hands with us black people, and made motions with their hands, signifying, I suppose, we were to go to their country; but we did not understand them.  At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel.  But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow.  The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.  The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.  This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now became insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated.  The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.  Happily perhaps for myself I was soon reduced so low here that it was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck; and from my extreme youth I was not put in fetters.  In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries.  Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself; I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs.  Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.  One day they had taken a number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat, as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again, although we begged and prayed for some as well as we could, but in vain; and some of my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw them, of trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings.

One day, when we had a smooth sea, and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen, who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings, and jumped into the sea; immediately another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would very soon have done the same, if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed.  Those of us that were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck; and there was such a noise and confusion amongst the people of the ship as I never heard before, to stop her, and get the boat out to go after the slaves.  However, two of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other, and afterwards flogged him unmercifully, for thus attempting to prefer to slavery.  In this manner we continued to undergo more hardships than I can now relate; hardships which are inseparable from this accursed trade.


  1. Such brutal floggings were at this time considered essential to the maintenance of discipline in the British navy and on ships engaged in the slave trade.  Flogging is not an Ibo and Edo from of punishment, as it is, for example, farther north in the Hausa country.

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from A Bill for Proportioning Crimes    and Punishments in Cases    Heretofore Capital
from Letter to Dr. Samuel Brown


Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was a person of remarkably broad interests. He was a leading architect of his day, played the violin in chamber music concerts, was an avid planter, and served as president of the American Philosophical Society. Born in Shadwell, Virginia, Jefferson grew to be an active participant in the state legislature, and later worked to create the University of Virginia. He traveled widely in Europe and was conversant with many currents of European thought.

Jefferson’s best known contributions are found in the political thought, public service, and diplomatic activities that he gave to the newly formed United States of America. Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and presented it to Congress (July 2, 1776). After the new country was formed, Jefferson served as its minister to France, as Secretary of State, and, from 1801 to 1809, as President.

Jefferson’s writings recommend a minimum of governmental intervention and urge respect for certain human liberties: freedom of religion, press, speech, and other civil rights. Although he owned many slaves, he also held that slavery was wrong and hoped that the institution would eventually be abolished.

Jefferson did not address the issue of suicide at length, but two short notes exhibit his attitudes toward the practice and the laws governing it. In the various states forming the new United States, it was the law, as in England, that the property of a suicide would be forfeited, thus depriving the surviving family. In his footnote to the Virginia Crimes Bill of 1779, Jefferson argues against such legislation, drawing heavily on the arguments put forth by Beccaria [q.v.].

The personal, philosophic, and botanically minded sides of Jefferson are reflected in his letter of midsummer 1813 to Dr. Samuel Brown, a fellow member of the American Philosophical Society, who was practicing medicine at the time in Natchez. In this correspondence, Jefferson comments on the capacity of a certain poisonous plant to promote a quick and painless death, though he expresses concern about the dangers of a drug of such high lethality should it fall into the hands of others. He appears to accept its use in certain circumstances, especially incurable cancer: “There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief.”

Many of Jefferson’s letters are responses to deaths of family members of his correspondents, and he often discussed death in objective terms. But he also had direct experience of its effects on family members: Jefferson’s wife died in 1782, when he was 39, leaving him stunned and distraught, and five of his six children died during his lifetime. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson, Revisal of the Laws 1776–1786, Bill #64: “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital.” Also available from the University of Chicago Press; “Letter to Dr. Samuel Brown,” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Definitive Edition, ed. Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. XIII. Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907, pp. 310-311.


Whereas it frequently happens that wicked and dissolute men resigning themselves to the dominion of inordinate passions, commit violations on the lives, liberties and property of others, and, the secure enjoyment of these having principally induced men to enter into society, government would be defective on it’s principal purpose were it not to restrain such criminal acts, by inflicting due punishments on those who perpetrate them; but it appears at the same time equally deducible from the purposes of society that a member thereof, committing an inferior injury, does not wholly forfeit the protection of his fellow citizens, but, after suffering a punishment in proportion to his offence is entitled to their protection from all greater pain, so that is becomes a duty in the legislature to arrange in a proper scale the crimes which it may be necessary for them to repress, and to adjust thereto a corresponding gradation of punishments.

And whereas the reformation of offenders, tho’ an object worthy the attention of the laws, is not effected at all by capital punishments, which exterminate instead of reforming, and should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence is become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens, which also weaken the state by cutting off so many who, if reformed, might be restored sound members to society, who, even under a course of correction, might be rendered useful in various labors for the public, and would be living and long continued spectacles to deter others from committing the like offences.

And forasmuch the experience of all ages and countries hath shewn that cruel and sanguinary laws defeat their own purpose by engaging the benevolence of mankind to withhold prosecutions, to smother testimony, or to listen to it with bias, when, if the punishment were only proportioned to the injury, men would feel it their inclination as well as their duty to see the laws observed.

For rendering crimes and punishments therefore more proportionate to each other: Be it enacted by the General assembly that no crime shall be henceforth punished by deprivation of life or limb except those hereinafter ordained to be so punished.

If a man do levy war against the Commonwealth or be adherent to the enemies of the commonwealth giving to them aid or comfort in the commonwealth, or elsewhere, and thereof be convicted of open deed, by the evidence of two sufficient witnesses, or his own voluntary confession, the said cases, and no others, shall be adjudged treasons which extend to the commonwealth, and the person so convicted shall suffer death by hanging, and shall forfiet his lands and goods to the Commonwealth.

If any person commit Petty treason, or a husband murder his wife, a parent his child, or a child his parent, he shall suffer death by hanging, and his body be delivered to Anatomists to be dissected.

Whosoever committeth murder by poisoning shall suffer death by poison.

Whosoever committeth murder by way of duel, shall suffer death by hanging; and if he were the challenger, his body, after death, shall be gibbeted.  He who removeth it from the gibbet shall be guilty of a misdemeanor; and the officer shall see that it be replaced.

Whosoever shall commit murder in any other way shall suffer death by hanging.

And in all cases of Petty treason and murder one half of the lands and goods of the offender shall be forfieted to the next of kin to the person killed, and the other half descend and go to his own representatives.  Save only where one shall slay the Challenger in at duel, in which case no part of his lands or goods shall be forfieted to the kindred of the party slain, but instead thereof a moiety shall go the Commonwealth.

The same evidence shall suffice, and order and course of trial be observed in cases of Petty treason as in those of others murders.

Whosoever shall be guilty of Manslaughter, shall for the first offence, be condemned to hard labor for seven years, in the public works, shall forfiet one half of his lands and goods to the next of kin to the person slain; the other half to be sequestered during such term, in the hands and to the use of the Commonwealth, allowing a reasonable part of the profits for the support of his family.  The second offence shall be deemed Murder.

And where persons, meaning to commit a trespass only, or larceny, of other unlawful deed, and doing an act from which involuntary homicide hath ensued, have heretofore been adjudged guilty of manslaughter, or of murder, by transferring such their unlawful intention to act much more penal than they could have in probable contemplation; no such case shall hereafter be deemed manslaughter, unless manslaughter was intended, not murder, unless murder was intended.

In other cases of homicide the law will not add to the miseries of the party by punishments or forfietures.

Whenever sentence of death shall have been pronounced against any person for treason or murder, execution shall be done on the next day but one after such sentence, unless it be Sunday, and then on the Monday following.

Whosoever shall be guilty of Rape, Polygamy, or Sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro’ the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at least.

But no one shall be punished for Polygamy who shall have married after probable information of the death of his or her husband or wife, or after his or her husband or wife hath absented him or herself, so that no notice of his or her being alive hath reached such person for 7. years together, or hath suffered the punishments before prescribed for rape, polygamy or sodomy.

Whosoever on purpose and of malice forethought shall maim another, or shall disfigure him, by cutting out or disabling the tongue, slitting or cutting off a nose, lip or ear, branding, or otherwise, shall be maimed or disfigured in like sort: or if that cannot be for want of the same part, then as nearly as may be in some other part of at least equal value and estimation in the opinion of a jury and moreover shall forfiet one half of his lands and goods to the suffer.

Whosoever shall counterfiet any coin current by law within this commonwealth, or any paper bills issued in the nature of money, or of certificates of loan on the credit of this Commonwealth, or of all or any of the United States of America, or any Inspectors notes for tobacco, or shall pass any such counterfeited coin, paper bills, or notes, knowing them to be counterfiet; or, for the sake of lucre, shall diminish, case, or wash any such coin, shall be condemned to hard labor six years in the public works, and shall forfiet all his lands and goods to the Commonwealth.

Whosoever committeth Arson shall be condemned to hard labor five years in the public works, and shall make good the loss of the sufferers threefold.

If any person shall within this Commonwealth, or being a citizen thereof shall without the same, wilfully destroy, or run away with any sea-vessel or goods laden on board thereof, or plunder or pilfer any wreck, he shall be condemned to hard labor five years in the public works, and shall make good the loss of the suffers three-fold.

Whosoever committeth Robbery shall be condemned to hard labor four years in the public works, and shall make double reparation to the persons injured.

Whatsoever act, if committed on any Mansion house, would be deemed Burglary, shall be Burglary if committed on any other house; and he who is guilty of Burglary, shall be condemned to hard labor four years in the public works, and shall make double reparation to the persons injured.

Whatsoever act, if committed in the night time, shall constitute the crime of Burglary, shall, if committed in the day be deemed Housebreaking; and whosoever is guilty thereof shall be condemned to hard labor three years in the public works, and shall make reparation to the persons injured.

Whosoever shall be guilty of Horsestealing shall be condemned to hard labor three years in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured.

Grand Larceny shall be where the goods stolen are of the value of five dollars, and whosoever shall be guilty thereof shall be forthwith put in the pillory for one half hour, shall be condemned to hard labor two years in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured.

Petty Larceny shall be where the goods stolen are of less value than five dollars; whosoever shall be guilty thereof shall be forthwith put in the pillory for a quarter of an hour, shall be condemned to hard labor one year in the public works, and shall make reparation to the person injured.

Robbery or Larceny of Bonds, bills obligatory, bills of exchange, or promisory notes for the paiment of money or tobacco, lottery tickets, paper bills issued in the nature of money, or of certificates of loan on the credit of this commonwealth, or of all or any of the United States of America, or Inspectors notes for tobacco, shall be punished in the same manner as robbery or larceny of the money or tobacco due on, or represented by such papers.

Buyers and Receivers of goods taken by way of robbery or larceny, knowing them to have been so taken, shall be deemed Accessaries to such robbery or larceny after the fact.

Prison breakers also shall be deemed Accessories after the fact to traitors or felons whom they enlarge from prison.

All attempts to delude the people, or to abuse their understanding by exercise of the pretended arts of witchcraft, conjuration, inchantment, or sorcery or by pretended prophecies, shall be punished by ducking and whipping at the discretion of a jury, not exceeding 15. stripes.

If the principal offender be fled, or secreted from justice, in any case not touching life or member, the Accessories may notwithstanding be prosecuted as if their principal were convicted.

If any offender stand mute of obstinacy, or challenge peremptorily more of the jurors than by law he may, being first warned of the consequence thereof, the court shall proceed as if he had confessed the charge.

Pardon and Privilege of clergy shall henceforth be abolished, that none may be induced to injure through hope of impunity.  But if the verdict be against the defendant, and the court before whom the offence is heard and determined, shall doubt that it may be untrue for defect of testimony, or other cause, they may direct a new trial to be had.

No attainder shall work corruption of blood in any case.

In all cases of forfeiture, the widow’s dower shall be saved to her, during her title thereto; after which it shall be disposed of as if no such saving had been.

The aid of Counsel, and examination of their witnesses on oath shall be allowed to defendants in criminal prosecutions.

Slaves guilty of any offence punishable in others by labor in the public works, shall be transported to such parts in the West Indies, S. America or Africa, as the Governor shall direct, there to be continued in slavery.


Monticello, July 14, 1813

Dear Sir,—Your favors of May 25th and June 13th have been duly received, as also the first supply of Capsicum, and the second o[f]  the same article with other seeds.  I shall set great store by the Capsicum, if it is hardy enough for our climate, the species we have heretofore tried being too tender.  The Galvance too, will be particularly attended to, as it appears very different from what we cultivate by that name.  I have so many grandchildren and others who might be endangered by the poison plant, that I think the risk overbalances the curiosity of trying it.  The most elegant thing of that kind known is a preparation of the Jamestown weed, Datura-Stramonium, invented by the French in the time of Robespierre.  Every man of firmness carried it constantly in his pocket to anticipate the guillotine.  It brings on the sleep of death as quietly as fatigue does the ordinary sleep, without the least struggle or motion.  Condorcet, who had recourse to it, was found lifeless on his bed a few minutes after his landlady had left him there, and even the slipper which she had observed half suspended on his foot, was not shaken off. It seems far preferable to the Venesection of the Romans, the Hemlock of the Greeks, and the Opium of the Turks.  I have never been able to learn what the preparation is, other than a strong concentration of its lethiferous principle.  Could such a medicament be restrained to self-administration, it ought not to be kept secret.  There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief, e.g., the inveterate cancer.  As a relief from tyranny indeed, for which the Romans recurred to it in the times of the emperors, it has been a wonder to me that they did not consider a poignard in the breast of the tyrant as a better remedy. . . .

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from Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions


Cotton Mather, son of Increase Mather [q.v.], was born in Boston, graduated from Harvard in 1678, and was ordained in 1685 in the Congregational Church. He assisted and then succeeded his father in the Second Church pastorate, Boston. Although he countenanced the Salem witchcraft trials and executions (1692-93), he did not directly participate in them; he did however have a hand in choosing some of the Salem judges and wrote to them during the trial, urging the rejection of spectral evidence (testimony of attacks by the specters of people otherwise known to the victim) and the merciful treatment of those who confessed (his counsel in each case was rejected). Then, having tried to be a moderating influence on the trials, he damaged his own reputation by writing Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), condemning the excesses of the trials but defending several of the trials’ resulting convictions. Cotton’s book was published at the same time as Increase’s attack on the use of spectral evidence in the Salem trials, Cases of Conscience. Even though Increase was different in his assessment of the witch trials, Increase is said to have publicly burned Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World in Harvard Yard, a book attacking Cotton’s book.

Cotton Mather’s discussion of suicide is distinctive in its quasi-medical character. He is particularly concerned with the etiology of suicidal acts; once suicidal ideation begins, it is intensified and taken advantage of by the intervention of devils (hence the title, “A Discourse on the Power and Malice of the Devils”). Nevertheless, it is possible to take steps to avoid this. In what may seem to modern readers to anticipate the role of psychiatric intervention, Mather emphasizes the importance for the potential victim of suicide of not keeping silent and of speaking with friends, physicians, and neighbors about feelings of guilt, sin, and what would now be identified as depression.


Cotton Mather, Memorable providences, relating to witchcrafts and possessions. : A faithful account of many wonderful and surprising things, that have befallen several bewitched and possessed persons in New-England. Particularly, a narrative of the marvellous trouble and releef experienced by a pious family in Boston, very lately and sadly molested with evil spirits. : Whereunto is added, a discourse delivered unto a congregation in Boston, on the occasion of that illustrious providence. : As also a discourse delivered unto the same congregation; on the occasion of an horrible self-murder committed in that town. : With an appendix, in vindication of a chapter in a late book of remarkable providences, from the calumnies of a Quaker at Pen-silvania. Boston: Richard Pierce, 1689. Material in introductory passage from Stephen Latham.

Facsimile available online from the Yale University Library.


Temptations to Self-Murder, may likewise be fierce upon some unhappy people here. Tis almost unaccountable, that at some times in some places here, melancholy distempered Ragings toward Self-Murder, have been in a manner Epidemical. And it would make ones hair stand, to see or hear what manifest Assistence the Devils have given to these unnatural Self-executions when once they have been begun. Tis too evident, that persons are commonly bewitch’t or possess’t into these unreasonable Phrensies. But What shall these hurried people do?

My Advice is,

Don’t Conceal, much less Obey the motions of your Adversary. Failing in this, made a poor man, after a faithful Sermon in a Neighbouring Town, presently to drown himself in a pit that had not two foot of Water in it.  If you will not Keep, that is the way not to Take the Devil’s Counsel. Let not him Tie your Tongues, and it is likely he will not gain your Souls. Complain to a good God of the Dangers in which you find your selves; cry to Him, Lord, I am oppressed, undertake for me. Complain also to a wise Friend. Let some prudent and faithful Neighbour understand your Circumstances: Tis possible you may thereby escape the Snares with which the cruel Fowlers of Hell hope to trapan you into their dismal Clutches for evermore. Your Neighbours may do much for you; and may prove your Keepers if God shall please. It may be the unkindness of some Friend, may have thrown you into your present Madness. Now the Kindness of some Friend may prove the Antidote. Many times, a Natural Distemper, is that by which the Devil takes advantage to get the souls of Self-Destroyers into his bloody hands. In this case, for the tempted persons to disclose their Griefs, will be the way to obtain their cures. Their Neighbours ought now to consult a skilful Physician for them; and oblige, yea, constrain them to follow his Directions. When the Humours on and by which the Devil works, are taken away, perhaps he may be starved out of doors. Many times, again, The sin of Slothfulness gives the Devil opportunity to procure the Self-Destruction of the sluggard. In this case too, the Tempted person may be succoured by the standers-by becoming sensible of their Circumstances. Their Neighbours may now compel them to follow their business. A Calling, the Business of a Calling, is an Ordinance of God, sanctified by Him to deliver us from the evil spirits that enter into the empty house,

But most times, There may be some old and great Sin unrepented of, where Temptations to Self-Murder have a violence hardly to be withstood,  There was once a man among us, who in the horrours of Despair, uttered many dreadful speeches against himself, and would often particularly say, I am all on a light Fire under the wrath of God!  This man yet never confessed any unusual sin, but this; that having gotten about Forty pounds by his Labour, he had spent it in wicked Company:  But in his Anguish of spirit he hanged himself.  There was once a woman among us, who under Sickness had made vowes of a New Life; but apprehending some defects in her conversation afterward, she fell into the distraction wherein she also hanged herself.  And the Sin of Adultery and Drunkenness has more than once issued in such a destructive Desperation.  In case of this or any such Guilt, Confession with Repentance affords a present Remedy.  To fly from Soul-Terrour by Self-Murder, is to leap out of the Frying-pan into the Fire.  Poor tempted People, I must like Paul in prison, cry with a loud voice unto you, Do your selves no harm; all may be well yet, if you will hearken to the Counsels of the Lord.

Now, Do thou, O God of peace, bruise Satan under our Feet. World without end, Amen.

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