Category Archives: Europe

(1926– )

from Apologia for Suicide


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from The Myth of Sisyphus
from Notebooks 1935–1951


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

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

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

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

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




Absurdity and Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *


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

* * *

Novel (Part II―consequences)

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Camus, Albert, Europe, Existentialism, Selections, The Modern Era


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


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

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

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

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

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




The Right to Bodily Life

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from The Moral Problem of Suicide


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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letter to the President and Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland


Szmul Zygielbojm was born in a village in what is now Poland, then part of the Russian empire. At the age of 10, he left school and began working in a factory. As a young man, he became involved in the Jewish labor movement, and in 1924 he was elected to the Central Committee of the Bund in 1924. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Zygielbojm went to Warsaw to participate in the defense of the city. He volunteered to replace a woman who was also active in the labor movement as one of the 12 hostages the Nazi occupation demanded; the Nazis then made him a member of the Jewish Council, the Judenrat, which they had established in order to create the ghetto in Warsaw, a move that Zygielbojm opposed. Zygielbojm escaped from the country, and during the years 1940–1943, he traveled, trying to persuade the Allies of the Nazi threat to Polish Jews. Representatives of the English and American governments met in Bermuda on April 19, 1943, to discuss the situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but did nothing. At the same time, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out and was definitively suppressed by the Nazis; Ziegelbojm’s wife and son were among the hundreds of thousands killed. Zygielbojm killed himself weeks later, on May 12, 1943, in protest against the Allied indifference to the evolving Holocaust.

Ziegelbojm’s suicide note, dated the day before his death, takes the form of a letter to the Polish president Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz and the Polish prime minister Wladyslaw Sikorski. Ziegelbojm explains the reason for his action; it is a brief but poignant and powerful account of suicide as protest.

Szmul Zygielbojm, “The Last Letter from Szmul Zygielbojm, The Bund Representative With the Polish National Council in Exile,” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Available online from Yad Vashem.



May 11, 1943

To His Excellency
The President of the Republic of Poland
Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz
Prime Minister 
General Wladyslaw Sikorski

Mr. President,
Mr. Prime Minister,

I am taking the liberty of addressing to you, Sirs, these my last words, and through you to the Polish Government and the people of Poland, and to the governments and people of the Allies, and to the conscience of the whole world:

The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out.

The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. by looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions — tortured children, women and men — they have become partners to the responsibility.

I am obliged to state that although the Polish Government contributed largely to the arousing of public opinion in the world, it still did not do enough. It did not do anything that was not routine, that might have been appropriate to the dimensions of the tragedy taking place in Poland.

Of close to 3.5 million Polish Jews and about 700,000 Jews who have been deported to Poland from other countries, there were, according to the official figures of the Bund transmitted by the Representative of the Government, only 300,000 still alive in April of this year. And the murder continues without end.

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.

By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

I know that there is no great value to the life of a man, especially today. But since I did not succeed in achieving it in my lifetime, perhaps I shall be able by my death to contribute to the arousing from lethargy of those who could and must act in order that even now, perhaps at the last moment, the handful of Polish Jews who are still alive can be saved from certain destruction.

My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland, and therefore I hand it over to them now. I yearn that the remnant that has remained of the millions of Polish Jews may live to see liberation together with the Polish masses, and that it shall be permitted to breathe freely in Poland and in a world of freedom and socialistic justice, in compensation for the inhuman suffering and torture inflicted on them. And I believe that such a Poland will arise and such a world will come about. I am certain that the President and the Prime Minister will send out these words of mine to all those to whom they are addressed, and that the Polish Government will embark immediately on diplomatic action and explanation of the situation, in order to save the living remnant of the Polish Jews from destruction.

I take leave of you with greetings, from everybody, and from everything that was dear to me and that I loved.

S. Zygielbojm

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from Notebooks 1914-1916
from Letters


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

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

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

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

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

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


from NOTEBOOKS, 1914-1916

January 10, 1917

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




May 30, 1920

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

Write soon.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

 June 21, 1920

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

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

Ludwig Wittgenstein


July  7, 1920

Dear [Bertrand] Russell:

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

Warmest regards from your devoted friend,

Ludwig Wittgenstein


Nov/Dec 7, 1931

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

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from The Courage to Be


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

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

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

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




The Meaning of Despair

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

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

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

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from Mrs. Dalloway
from A Room of One’s Own
Journal Entry, May 15, 1940
Letter to Leonard Woolf


Virginia Woolf, the English novelist and literary critic, profoundly influenced both the modern literary form and feminist criticism. She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London and educated at home by her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, a prominent philosopher and biographer. Although her father held that suicide in preference to a life of agony was clearly moral, he did not kill himself, but died of cancer. After her father’s death, when Virginia was 23, she, her sister, and her two brothers moved to a home in the Bloomsbury district of London, a home that soon became a place of gathering for an intellectual circle called the Bloomsbury group. This group included art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, economist John Maynard Keynes, novelist E. M. Forster, and writer Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia later married in 1912.

Woolf’s many novels, including The Voyage Out (1915), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927), significantly altered and expanded conventional novelistic form with new techniques like stream-of-consciousness, unique plotting, and focus on the interiority of characters, revealing their inner thoughts by their effects on their surroundings. Woolf also contributed significantly as a literary critic and essayist. Her most important essays, like the landmark A Room of One’s Own (1929), focused on the role of women in history and literature, and established Woolf as one of the founders of feminist criticism.

Virginia Woolf suffered throughout her life from a debilitating mental and physical illness that, although never fully identified (believed in her day to be a disease of the nerves), may have been bipolar disorder, exacerbated by drug therapies and lengthy and confining bed rest. According to the writings of both Woolf and her husband Leonard, the illness was intermittent, often intensifying into dramatic and horrifying episodes that included severe pain, nausea, and delirium, and that provoked at least three suicide attempts. In the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf invents the character of Septimus, who suffers from a similar condition and whose experiences are clearly representative of the same traumas she endured. Through her depiction of Septimus’s illness and his treatment by Dr. Holmes and the specialist Sir William Bradshaw, Woolf indicts the medical institution, which she felt was dismissive and unhelpful, and which she believed made the ailment worse through drug treatments, confinement, forced eating, and no visitations or writing allowed. In the novel, after experiencing this sort of treatment, Septimus commits suicide by throwing himself out of a window, the same way Woolf herself had attempted suicide during a violent episode of her illness.

Some scholars have argued that Woolf’s interest in women’s issues was in part provoked by her experiences with the medical institution. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf imagines a woman of literary genius in the Elizabethan period, Judith Shakespeare, the sister of William Shakespeare [q.v.]. For the imaginary Judith, however, existing social constraints and imposed expectations of cultural roles for women provided only a few drastic options for escape: suicide or madness. Judith chooses suicide.

Woolf explored suicide in other, actual contexts as well. A journal entry from 1940 reveals that Virginia and her husband Leonard (“L.” in the entry) discussed suicide in the event that Germany successfully invaded Britain. She describes the discussion as “sensible, rather matter of fact talk.”

Suicide was always a possibility for Woolf. Although it is true that neither restrictive cultural expectations nor the medical institution were the sole cause of Woolf’s recurrent depressions, she did believe that they made its effects far worse, and that by continuing the prescribed treatment of the doctors, she could never escape from her suffering. On March 28, 1941, as she felt another exacerbation of her illness coming on, Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Many critics and scholars have argued about Woolf’s reasons for committing suicide. In a letter written to her husband shortly before her death, Woolf indicates that she intends to kill herself because she believes that another breakdown is impending. The letter has been variously interpreted as both revealing that Woolf made a rational decision to prevent further anguish, and as showing that Woolf was already suffering from the effects of mental illness.


Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (London:  Harcourt Brace, 1953), pp. 91-102, 147-151; A Room of One’s Own (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), pp. 46-49; Journal entry, Wednesday 15 May, 1940, from The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, 1936-1941, ed. Anne Oliver Bell (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), pp. 284-285; letter to Leonard Woolf, Tuesday, 18? March 1941, from Leave the Letters Till We’re Dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. VI, 1936-1941, ed. Nigel Nicolson (London: Hogarth Press, 1980), p. 481.



Dr. Holmes came again. Large, fresh coloured, handsome, flicking his boots, looking in the glass, he brushed it all aside—headaches, sleeplessness, fears, dreams—nerve symptoms and nothing more, he said. If Dr. Holmes found himself even half a pound below eleven stone six, he asked his wife for another plate of porridge at breakfast. (Rezia would learn to cook porridge.) But, he continued, health is largely a matter in our own control. Throw yourself into outside interests; take up some hobby. He opened Shakespeare—Antony and Cleopatra; pushed Shakespeare aside. Some hobby, said Dr. Holmes, for did he not owe his own excellent health (and he worked as hard as any man in London) to the fact that he could always switch off from his patients on to old furniture? And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren Smith was wearing!

When the damned fool came again, Septimus refused to see him. Did he indeed? Said Dr. Holmes, smiling agreeably. Really he had to give that charming little lady, Mrs. Smith, a friendly push before he could get past her into her husband’s bedroom.

“So you’re in a funk,” he said agreeably, sitting down by his patient’s side. He had actually talked of killing himself to his wife, quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she? Didn’t that give her a very odd idea of English husbands? Didn’t one owe perhaps a duty to one’s wife? Wouldn’t it be better to do something instead of lying in bed? For he had had forty years’ experience behind him; and Septimus could take Dr. Holmes’s word for it—there was nothing whatever the matter with him. And next time Dr. Holmes came he hoped to find Smith out of bed and not making that charming little lady his wife anxious about him.

Human nature, in short, was on him—the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils. Holmes was on him. Dr. Holmes came quite regularly every day. Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you. Holmes is on you. Their only chance was to escape, without letting Holmes know; to Italy—anywhere, anywhere, away from Dr. Holmes.

But Rezia could not understand him. Dr. Holmes was such a kind man. He was so interested in Septimus. He only wanted to help them, he said. He had four little children and he had asked her to tea, she told Septimus.

So he was deserted. The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood,—by sucking a gas pipe? He was too weak; he could scarcely raise his hand. Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know. Holmes had won of course; the brute with the red nostrils had won. But even Holmes himself could not touch this last relic straying on the edge of the world, this outcast, who gazed back at the inhabited regions, who lay, like a drowned sailor, on the shore of the world.

Indeed it was—Sir William Bradshaw’s motor car; low, powerful, grey with plain initials interlocked on the panel, as if the pomps of heraldry were incongruous, this man being the ghostly helper, the priest of science; and, as the motor car was grey, so to match its sober suavity, grey furs, silver grey rugs were heaped in it, to keep her ladyship warm while she waited. For often Sir William would travel sixty miles or more down into the country to visit the rich, the afflicted, who could afford the very large fee which Sir William very properly charged for his advice. Her ladyship waited with the rugs about her knees an hour or more, leaning back, thinking sometimes of the patient, sometimes, excusably, of the wall of gold, mounting minute by minute while she waited; the wall of gold that was mounting between them and all shifts and anxieties (she had borne them bravely; they had had their struggles) until she felt wedged on a calm ocean, where only spice winds blow; respected, admired, envied, with scarcely anything left to wish for, though she regretted her stoutness; large dinner-parties every Thursday night to the profession; an occasional bazaar to be opened; Royalty greeted; too little time, alas, with her husband whose work grew and grew; a boy doing well at Eton; she would have liked a daughter too; interests she had, however, in plenty; child welfare; the after-care of the epileptic, and photography, so that if there was a church building, or a church decaying, she bribed the sexton, got the key and took photographs, which were scarcely to be distinguished from the work of professionals, while she waited.

Sir William himself was no longer young. He had worked very hard; he had won his position by sheer ability (being the son of a shopkeeper); loved his profession; made a fine figurehead at ceremonies and spoke well—all of which had by the time he was knighted given him a heavy look, a weary look (the stream of patients being so incessant, the responsibilities and privileges of his profession so onerous), which weariness, together with his grey hairs, increased the extraordinary distinction of his presence and gave him the reputation (of the utmost importance in dealing with nerve cases) not merely of lightning skill, and almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis but of sympathy; tact; understanding of the human soul. He could see the first moment they came into the room (the Warren Smiths they were called); he was certain directly he saw the man; it was a case of extreme gravity. It was a case of complete breakdown—complete physical and nervous breakdown, with every symptom in an advanced stage, he ascertained in two or three minutes (writing answers to questions, murmured discreetly, on a pink card).

How long had Dr. Holmes been attending him?

Six weeks.

Prescribed a little bromide?  Said there was nothing the matter?  Ah yes (those general practitioners!  Thought Sir William. It took half his time to undo their blunders. Some were irreparable).

“You served with great distinction in the War?

The patient repeated the word “war” interrogatively.

He was attaching meanings to words of a symbolical kind. A serious symptom, to be noted on the card.

“The War?” the patient asked. The European War—that little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder?  Had he served with distinction?  He really forgot. In the War itself he had failed.

“Yes, he served with the greatest distinction,” Rezia assured the doctor; “he was promoted.”

“And they have the very highest opinion of you at your office?” Sir William murmured, glancing at Mr. Brewer’s very generously worded letter. “So that you have nothing to worry you, no financial anxiety, nothing?”

He had committed an appalling crime and been condemned to death by human nature.

“I have—I have,” he began, “committed a crime—”

“He has done nothing wrong whatever,” Rezia assured the doctor. If Mr. Smith would wait, said Sir William, he would speak to Mrs. Smith in the next room. Her husband was very seriously ill, Sir William said. Did he threaten to kill himself?

Oh, he did, she cried. But he did not mean it, she said. Of course not. It was merely a question of rest, said Sir William; of rest, rest, rest; a long rest in bed. There was a delightful home down in the country where her husband would be perfectly looked after. Away from her? She asked. Unfortunately, yes; the people we care for most are not good for us when we are ill. But he was not mad, was he? Sir William said he never spoke of “madness”; he called it not having a sense of proportion. But her husband did not like doctors. He would refuse to go there. Shortly and kindly Sir William explained to her the state of the case. He had threatened to kill himself. There was no alternative. It was a question of law. He would lie in bed in a beautiful house in the country. The nurses were admirable. Sir William would visit him once a week. If Mrs. Warren Smith was quite sure she had no more questions to ask—he never hurried his patients—they would return to her husband. She had nothing more to ask—not of Sir William.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

“We have had our little talk,” said Sir William.

“He says you are very, very ill,” Rezia cried.

“We have been arranging that you should go into a home,” said Sir William.

“One of Holmes’s homes?” sneered Septimus.

The fellow made a distasteful impression. For there was in Sir William, whose father had been a tradesman, a natural respect for breeding and clothing, which shabbiness nettled; again, more profoundly, there was in Sir William, who had never had time for reading, a grudge, deeply buried, against cultivated people who came into his room and intimated that doctors, whose profession is a constant strain upon all the highest faculties, are not educated men.

“One of my homes, Mr. Warren Smith,” he said, “where we will teach you to rest.”

And there was just one thing more.

He was quite certain that when Mr. Warren Smith was well he was the last man in the world to frighten his wife. But he had talked of killing himself.

“We all have our moments of depression,” said Sir William.

Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.

“Impulses came upon him sometimes?”  Sir William asked, with his pencil on a pink card.

“That was his own affair,” said Septimus.

“Nobody lives for himself alone,” said Sir William, glancing at the photograph of his wife in Court dress.

“And you have a brilliant career before you,” said Sir William. There was Mr. Brewer’s letter on the table. “An exceptionally brilliant career.”

But if he confessed? If he communicated? Would they let him off then, his torturers?

“I—I—” he stammered.

But what was his crime?  He could not remember it.

“Yes?”  Sir William encouraged him.  (But it was growing late.)

Love, trees, there is no crime—what was his message?

He could not remember it.

“I—I—” Septimus stammered.

“Try to think as little about yourself as possible,” said Sir William kindly. Really, he was not fit to be about.

Was there anything else they wished to ask him? Sir William would make all arrangements (he murmured to Rezia) and he would let her know between five and six that evening he murmured.

“Trust everything to me,” he said, and dismissed them.

Never, never had Rezia felt such agony in her life! She had asked for help and been deserted! He had failed them! Sir William Bradshaw was not a nice man.

“The upkeep of that motor car alone must cost him quite a lot,” said Septimus, when they got out into the street.

She clung to his arm. They had been deserted.

But what more did she want?

To his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour; and if in this exacting science which has to do with what, after all, we know nothing about—the nervous system, the human brain—a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails. Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ (a common delusion), and has a message, as they mostly have, and threatens, as they often do, to kill himself, you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve.

Proportion, divine proportion, Sir William’s goddess, was acquired by Sir William walking hospitals, catching salmon, begetting one son in Harley Street by Lady Bradshaw, who caught salmon herself and took photographs scarcely to be distinguished from the work of professionals. Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion—his, if they were men, Lady Bradshaw’s if they were women (she embroidered, knitted, spent four nights out of seven at home with her son), so that not only did his colleagues respect him, his subordinates fear him, but the friends and relations of his patients felt for him the keenest gratitude for insisting that these prophetic Christs and Christesses, who prophesied the end of the world, or the advent of God, should drink milk in bed, as Sir William ordered; Sir William with his thirty years’ experience of these kinds of cases, and his infallible instinct, this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion.

There in the grey room, with the pictures on the wall, and the valuable furniture, under the ground glass skylight, they learnt the extent of their transgressions; huddled up in arm-chairs, they watched him go through, for their benefit, a curious exercise with the arms, which he shot out, brought sharply back to his hip, to prove (if the patient was obstinate) that Sir William was master of his own actions, which the patient was not. There some weakly broke down; sobbed, submitted; others, inspired by Heaven knows what intemperate madness, called Sir William to his face a damnable humbug; questioned, even more impiously, life itself. Why live? they demanded. Sir William replied that life was good. Certainly Lady Bradshaw in ostrich feathers hung over the mantelpiece, and as for his income it was quite twelve thousand a year. But to us, they protested, life has given no such bounty. He acquiesced. They lacked a sense of proportion. And perhaps, after all, there is no God? He shrugged his shoulders. In short, this living or not living is an affair of our own? But there they were mistaken. Sir William had a friend in Surrey where they taught, what Sir William frankly admitted was a difficult art—a sense of proportion. There were, moreover, family affection; honour; courage; and a brilliant career. All of these had in Sir William a resolute champion. If they failed him, he had to support police and the good of society, which, he remarked very quietly, would take care, down in Surrey, that these unsocial impulses, bred more that anything by the lack of good blood, were held in control. And then stole out from her hiding-place and mounted her throne that Goddess whose lust is to override opposition, to stamp indelibly in the sanctuaries of others the image of herself. Naked, defenceless, the exhausted, the friendless received the impress of Sir William’s will. He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up. It was this combination of decision and humanity that endeared Sir William so greatly to the relations of his victims.

But Rezia Warren Smith cried, walking down Harley Street, that she did not like that man.

Septimus remembered Bradshaw said, “The people we are most fond of are not good for us when we are ill.” Bradshaw said, he must be taught to rest. Bradshaw said they must be separated.

“Must,” “must,” why “must”? “What power had Bradshaw over him?” “What right has Bradshaw to say ‘must’ to me?”  he demanded.

“It is because you talked of killing yourself,” said Rezia. (Mercifully, she could now say anything to Septimus.)

So he was in their power! Holmes and Bradshaw were on him! The brute with the red nostrils was snuffing into every secret place! “Must” it could say! Where were his papers? The things he had written?

She brought him his papers, the things he had written, things she had written for him. She tumbled them out on to the sofa. They looked at them together. Diagrams, designs, little men and women brandishing sticks for arms, with wings—were they?—on their backs; circles traced round shillings and sixpences—the suns and stars; zigzagging precipices with mountaineers ascending roped together, exactly like knives and forks; sea pieces with little faces laughing out of what might perhaps be waves: the map of the world. Burn them! he cried. Now for his writings; how the dead sing behind rhododendron bushes; odes to Time; conversations with Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans—his messages from the dead; do not cut down trees; tell the Prime Minister. Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them! he cried.

But Rezia laid her hands on them. Some were very beautiful, she thought. She would tie them up (for she had no envelope) with a piece of silk.

Even if they took him, she said, she would go with him. They could not separate them against their wills, she said.

Shuffling the edges straight, she did up the papers, and tied the parcel almost without looking, sitting beside him, he thought, as if all her petals were about her. She was a flowering tree; and through her branches looked out the face of a lawgiver, who had reached a sanctuary where she feared no one; not Holmes; not Bradshaw; a miracle, a triumph, the last and greatest. Staggering he saw her mount the appalling staircase, laden with Holmes and Bradshaw, men who never weighed less than eleven stone six, who sent their wives to Court, men who made ten thousand a year and talked of proportion; who different in their verdicts (for Holmes said one thing, Bradshaw another), yet judges they were; who mixed the vision and the sideboard; saw nothing clear, yet ruled, yet inflicted. “Must” they said. Over them she triumphed.

“There!” she said. The papers were tied up. No one should get at them. She would put them away.

And, she said, nothing should separate them. She sat down beside him and called him by the name of that hawk or crow which being malicious and a great destroyer of crops was precisely like him. No one could separate them, she said.

Then she got up to go into the bedroom to pack their things, but hearing voices downstairs and thinking that Dr. Holmes had perhaps called, ran down to prevent him coming up.

Septimus could hear her talking to Holmes on the staircase.

“My dear lady, I have come as a friend,” Holmes was saying.

“No. I will not allow you to see my husband,” she said.

He could see her, like a little hen, with her wings spread barring his passage.  But Holmes persevered.

“My dear lady, allow me …” Holmes said, putting her aside (Holmes was a powerfully built man).

Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door. Holmes would say “In a funk, eh?” Holmes would get him. But no; not Holmes; not Bradshaw. Getting up rather unsteadily, hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer’s nice clean bread knife with “Bread” carved on the handle. Ah, but one mustn’t spoil that. The gas fire? But it was too late now. Holmes was coming. Razors he might have got, but Rezia, who always did that sort of thing, had packed them. There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window, the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.)  But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings—what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.

“The coward!” cried Dr. Holmes, bursting the door open. Rezia ran to the window, she saw; she understood. Dr. Holmes and Mrs. Filmer collided with each other. Mrs. Filmer flapped her apron and made her hide her eyes in the bedroom. There was a great deal of running up and down stairs. Dr. Holmes came in—white as a sheet, shaking all over, with a glass in his hand. She must be brave and drink something, he said (What was it?  Something sweet), for her husband was horribly mangled, would not recover consciousness, she must not see him, must be spared as much as possible, would have the inquest to go through, poor young woman. Who could have foretold it? A sudden impulse, no one was in the least to blame (he told Mrs. Filmer). And why the devil he did it, Dr. Holmes could not conceive.

It seemed to her as she drank the sweet stuff that she was opening long windows, stepping out into some garden. But where? The clock was striking—one, two, three: how sensible the sound was; compared with all this thumping and whispering; like Septimus himself. She was falling asleep. But the clock went on striking, four, five, six and Mrs. Filmer waving her apron (they wouldn’t bring the body in here, would they?) seemed part of that garden; or a flag. She had once seen a flag slowly rippling out from a mast when she stayed with her aunt at Venice. Men killed in battle were thus saluted, and Septimus had been through the War. Of her memories, most were happy.

She put on her hat, and ran through cornfields—where could it have been?—on to some hill, somewhere near the sea, for there were ships, gulls, butterflies, they say on a cliff. In London too, there they sat, and, half dreaming, came to her through the bedroom door, rain falling, whisperings, stirrings among dry corn, the caress of the sea, as it seemed to her, hollowing them in its arched shell and murmuring to her laid on shore, strewn she felt, like flying flowers over some tomb.

“He is dead,” she said, smiling at the poor old woman who guarded her with her honest light-blue eyes fixed on the door. (They wouldn’t bring him in here, would they?) But Mrs. Filmer pooh-poohed. Oh no, oh no! They were carrying him away now. Ought she not to be told? Married people ought to be together, Mrs. Filmer thought. But they must do as the doctor said.

“Let her sleep,” said Dr. Holmes, feeling her pulse. She saw the large outline of his body standing dark against the window. So that was Dr. Holmes.



Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night. They had no money evidently; according to Professor Trevelyan they were married whether they liked it or not before they were out of the nursery, at fifteen or sixteen very likely. It would have been extremely odd, even upon this showing, had one of them suddenly written the plays of Shakespeare, I concluded, and I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.

Be that as it may, I could not help thinking, as I looked at the works of Shakespeare on the shelf, that the bishop was right at least in this; it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably—his mother was an heiress—to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin—Ovid, Virgil and Horace—and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighborhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen. Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter—indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighboring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager—a fat, loose-lipped man—guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting—no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted—you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last—for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows—at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so—who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?—killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.

That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius. But for my part, I agree with the deceased bishop, if such he was—it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius. For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes. How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began, according to Professor Trevelyan, almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom? Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. But certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. It was a woman Edward Fitzgerald, I think, suggested who made the ballads and the folk-songs, crooning them to her children, beguiling her spinning with them, or the length of the winter’s night.

This may be true or it may be false—who can say? —but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.

15 May, 1940

An appeal last night for home defence—against parachutists. L. says he’ll join. An acid conversation. Our nerves are harassed—mine at least: L. evidently relieved by the chance of doing something. Gun & uniform to me slightly ridiculous.  Behind that the strain: this morning we discussed suicide if Hitler lands. Jews beaten up. What point in waiting? Better shut the garage doors. This a sensible, rather matter of fact talk.


Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex, Tuesday [18? March 1941]


I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.


On 11 May 1941 Leonard noted at the foot of this letter: “This is the letter left for me on the table in the sitting room which I found at 1 on March 28.”

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Filed under Europe, Selections, The Modern Era, Woolf, Virginia


from Letters
  • July 10, 1946
  • July 25, 1946
  • Oct. 13, 1951
  • Nov. 10, 1955


Carl Gustav Jung, born Karl Gustav II Jung, is regarded as the founder of analytical psychology. He was born in Kesswil, Switzerland, the son of a poor Protestant clergyman and philologist who taught him Latin at an early age. Although at first pressured to become a minister like many in his family, Jung eventually decided to become a psychiatrist, receiving his M.D. degree from the University of Zurich in 1902. Despite his focus on scientific topics, Jung integrated many religious, philosophical, and archeological works into his studies. Working with asylum patients under Eugen Bleuler, a pioneer in mental illness research, Jung studied patients’ responses to stimulus words, and termed the group of associations they avoided a “complex.” Between 1907 and 1912, Jung collaborated closely with Sigmund Freud, whose theories were supported by Jung’s results and who for a while regarded Jung as his outstanding disciple; however, the pair split in disagreement over the role of sexuality in neurosis and the development of children. Jung’s subsequent publications, Psychology of the Unconscious (1912) and Psychological Types (1921), ran counter to Freud’s arguments and established Jung’s unique views in psychology. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Jung served as professor of psychology at the Federal Polytechnic University in Zurich. He was appointed professor of medical psychology at the University of Basel in 1943, but was forced to resign almost immediately because of his poor health. He continued to write prolifically until well into his 80s.

Among the many concepts that Jung originated were those of “extroverted” and “introverted” personalities (into which two classes he divided most men), the “collective unconscious,” and the theory of “archetypes.” Jung’s ideas have influenced not only psychiatry, but also the fields of religion, literature, and parapsychology. Jung interpreted Christianity as an essential step in the historical development of consciousness and argued that heretical movements were archetypal constituents of religion not fully contained in Christianity. Jung pioneered therapy for older patients who had lost their faith in life. Individuation, or the ingrained capacity to reconcile complementary oppositions in one’s personality, including one’s basic bisexuality, and thus undergo the process of full human development, is at the core of Jung’s teachings. Neuroses are merely impulses to broaden one’s consciousness toward self-realization and totality. Jung conceived of therapy as an active and analytic process, steering away from Freud’s free associations into a form of directed associations. Various societies around the world serve as centers for the development of Jung’s teachings and provide training for new Jungian analysts.

In these selections from Jung’s collected Letters—some originally in English, some in German—Jung communicates with acquaintances who are dealing with suicide. Jung frequently used letters as a way of communicating his views to the outside world (he sent copies to people whose judgment he trusted) and correcting misinterpretations of and expanding on his views. In the three letters addressed to people who have evidently written to him because of his fame, he appears to argue that suicide is a denial of full self-realization, as is clearly evident in the letter of July 10, 1946, addressed to an elderly resident of Germany and the letters of October 13, 1951, and November 10, 1955, to two different “Mrs. N”s. In the more reflective letter of July 25, 1946, addressed to his acquaintance Dr. Eleanor Bertine, however, he appears to adopt an almost fatalistic attitude toward suicide—“I’m convinced that if anybody has it in himself to commit suicide, then practically the whole of his being is going that way”—and arguing against interference or prevention.

Carl Gustav Jung, Letterseds. Gerhard Adler with Aniela Jaffé, tr. R. F. C. Hull. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953, 1975), Vol. 1, pp. 434-37, Vol. 2, pp. 25-26, 278-279.




Dear Sir,                                                                                        10 July 1946

By parental power is usually understood the influence exerted by any person in authority.  If this influence occurs in childhood and in an unjustified way, as happened in your case, it is apt to take root in the unconscious.  Even if the influence is discontinued outwardly, it still goes on working in the unconscious and then one treats oneself as badly as one was treated earlier.  If your work now gives you some joy and satisfaction you must cultivate it, just as you should cultivate everything that gives you some joy in being alive.  The idea of suicide, understandable as it is, does not seem commendable to me.  We live in order to attain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness.  As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang on to it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development.  To interrupt life before its time is to bring to a standstill an experiment which we have not set up.  We have found ourselves in the midst of it and must carry it through to the end.  That it is extraordinarily difficult for you, with your blood pressure at 80, is quite understandable, but I believe you will not regret it if you cling on even to such a life to the very last.  If, aside from your work, you read a good book, as one reads the Bible, it can become a bridge for you leading inwards, along which good things may flow to you such as you perhaps cannot now imagine.

You have no need to worry about the question of a fee.  With best wishes,

Yours sincerely, C. G. JUNG



Dear Dr. Eleanor Bertine,                                                          25 July 1946

I’m just spending a most agreeable time of rest in my tower and enjoy sailing as the only sport which is still available to me.  I have just finished two lectures for the Eranos meeting of this summer.  It is about the general problem of the psychology of the unconscious and its philosophical implications.

And now I have finally rest and peace enough to be able to read your former letters and to answer them.  I should have thanked you for your careful reports about Kristine Mann’s illness and death long ago,[i] but I never found time enough to do so.  There have been so many urgent things to be done that all my time was eaten up and I cannot work so quickly any longer as I used to do.

It is really a question whether a person affected by such a terrible illness should or may end her life.  It is my attitude in such cases not to interfere.  I would let things happen if they were so, because I’m convinced that if anybody has it in himself to commit suicide, then practically the whole of his being is going that way.  I have seen cases where it would have been something short of criminal to hinder the people because according to all rules it was in accordance with the tendency of their unconscious and thus the basic thing.  So I think nothing is really gained by interfering with such an issue.  It is presumably to be left to the free choice of the individual.  Anything that seems to be wrong to us can be right under certain circumstances over which we have no control and the end of which we do not understand.  If Kristine Mann had committed suicide under the stress of unbearable pain, I should have thought that this was the right thing.  As it was not the case, I think it was in her stars to undergo such a cruel agony for reasons that escape our understanding.  Our life is not made entirely by ourselves.  The main bulk of it is brought into existence out of sources that are hidden to us.  Even complexes can start a century or more before a man is born.  There is something like karma.

Kristine’s experience you mention is truly of a transcendent nature.  If it were the effect of morphine it would occur regularly, but it doesn’t.  On the other hand it bears all the characteristics of an ekstasis.  Such a thing is possible only when there is a detachment of the soul from the body.  When that takes place and the patient lives on, one can almost with certainty expect a certain deterioration of the character inasmuch as the superior and most essential part of the soul has already left.  Such an experience denotes a partial death.  It is of course a most aggravating experience for the environment, as a person whose personality is so well known seems to lose it so completely and shows nothing more than demoralization or the disagreeable symptoms of a drug addict.  But it is the lower man that keeps on living with the body and who is nothing else but the life of the body.  With old people or persons seriously ill, it often happens that they have peculiar states of withdrawal or absent-mindedness, which they themselves cannot explain, but which are presumably conditions in which the detachment takes place.  It is sometimes a process that lasts very long.  What is happening in such conditions one rarely has a chance to explore, but it seems to me that it is as if such conditions had an inner consciousness which is so remote from our matter-of-fact consciousness that it is almost impossible to retranslate its contents into the terms of our actual consciousness.  I must say that I have had some experiences along that line.  They have given me a very different idea about what death means.

I hope you will forgive me that I’m so late in answering your previous letters.  As I said, there has been so much in between that I needed a peaceful time when I could risk entering into the contents of your letter.

My best wishes!

Yours sincerely, C. G. JUNG



Dear Mrs. N.,                                                                                    13 October 1951

It isn’t easy or simple to answer your question, because much depends upon your faculty of understanding.  Your understanding on the other hand depends upon the development and maturity of your personal character.

It isn’t possible to kill part of your “self” unless you kill yourself first.  If you ruin your conscious personality, the so-called ego-personality, you deprive the self of its real goal, namely to become real itself.  The goal of life is the realization of the self.  If you kill yourself you abolish that will of the self that guides you through life to that eventual goal.  An attempt at suicide doesn’t affect the intention of the self to become real, but it may arrest your personal development inasmuch as it is not explained.  You ought to realize that suicide is murder, since after suicide there remains a corpse exactly as with any ordinary murder.  Only it is yourself that has been killed.  That is the reason why the Common Law punishes a man that tries to commit suicide, and it is psychologically true too.  Therefore suicide certainly is not the proper answer.

As long as you don’t realize the nature of this very dangerous impulse you block the way to further development, just as a man who intends to commit a theft, without knowing what he is intending and without realizing the ethical implication of such a deed, cannot develop any further unless he takes into account that he has a criminal tendency.  Such tendencies are very frequent, only they don’t always succeed and there is hardly anybody who must not realize in this or any other way that he has a dark shadow following him.  That is the human lot.  If it were not so, we might get perfect one day which might be pretty awful too.  We shouldn’t be naïve about ourselves and in order not to be we have to climb down to a more modest level of self-appreciation.

Hoping I have answered your question, I remain,

Yours sincerely, C. G. JUNG

Thank you for the fee.
Nothing more is needed.



Dear Mrs. N.,                                                                                19 November 1955

I am glad that you do understand the difficulty of your request.  How can anybody be expected to be competent enough to give such advice?  I feel utterly incompetent—yet I cannot deny the justification of your wish and I have no heart to refuse it.  If your case were my own, I don’t know what could happen to me, but I am rather certain that I would not plan a suicide ahead.  I should rather hang on as long as I can stand my fate or until sheer despair forces my hand.  The reason for such an “unreasonable” attitude with me is that I am not at all sure what will happen to me after death.  I have good reasons to assume that things are not finished with death.  Life seems to be an interlude in a long story.  It has been long before I was, and it will most probably continue after the conscious interval in a three-dimensional existence.  I shall therefore hang on as long as it is humanly possible and I try to avoid all forgone conclusions, considering seriously the hints I got as to the post mortem events.

Therefore I cannot advise you to commit suicide for so-called reasonable considerations.  It is murder and a corpse is left behind, no matter who has killed whom.  Rightly the English Common Law punishes the perpetrator of the deed.  Be sure first, whether it is really the will of God to kill yourself or merely your reason.  The latter is positively not good enough.  If it should be the act of sheer despair, it will not count against you, but a willfully planned act might weigh heavily against you.

This is my incompetent opinion.  I have learned caution with the “perverse.”  I do not underestimate your truly terrible ordeal.  In deepest sympathy,

 Yours cordially, C. G. JUNG


[i]  Kristine Mann had died on 12 Nov. 45.  About 3 or 4 months before her death, while in hospital with a good deal of pain, depressed and unhappy, Dr. Mann saw one morning an ineffable light glowing in her room. It lasted for about an hour and a half and left her with a deep sense of peace and joy. The recollection of it remained indelible, although after that experience her state of health worsened steadily and her mind deteriorated. Jung felt that at the time of the experience her spirit had left her body.


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Filed under Afterlife, Europe, Illness and Old Age, Jung, Carl Gustav, Psychiatry, Selections, The Modern Era, Value of Life


from Suicide


Born near Vienna to a grain merchant, Adler’s experiences with rickets and a near fatal case of pneumonia as a child made him interested in a medical career. He received his M.D. from the University of Vienna in 1895 and practiced general medicine until about 1900, when he turned to psychiatry and neurology. As a physician, Adler demonstrated a holistic approach to the patient, taking seriously into account the contexts of social and human factors. In 1902, he began a close association with Sigmund Freud, which eventually disintegrated because of irreconcilable differences between their theories. Adler rejected Freud’s idea that neurosis stemmed from childhood sexual conflicts; instead, for Adler, sexuality filled a figurative position in the attempt to overcome feelings of inadequacy, that universal infantile “inferiority feeling” (or “inferiority complex,” as it came to be known), responses to which form the basis of character.

In a Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation (1907) and The Neurotic Constitution (1912), Adler repudiated drive psychology and developed a system that came to be known as “Individual Psychology.” This theory posits that man’s opinion of himself and his surroundings affects all of his psychological operations; man’s principal motive is an inherent effort for perfection while his liability is the inferiority complex. For Adler, psychotherapy was a tool to help the patient become more self-determined, socially useful, reasonable, mature, and self-transcendent; this is accomplished by bringing the patient’s attention to the failures of his attempts to cope with feelings of inferiority. In 1921, Adler was the first to establish child-guidance clinics in Vienna where he could implement his belief that social values were transmitted in the early education of children, though these clinics were closed by the Austrian government in 1934 because of Adler’s Jewish heritage. He lectured and taught widely on social and scientific issues: from 1927 to 1937, he taught in the United States at Columbia University and the Long Island College School of Medicine. He died while on a lecture tour in Scotland.

Adler’s essay “Suicide” (1937) is an example of the increasingly scientific, non-moralizing treatment of suicide that arose with the development of psychiatry and psychology around and after the turn of the century. Adler recognized the situational factors that contribute to suicide, such as cultural beliefs and financial distress; in addition, certain predisposing factors are apparent in certain characteristics of children, such as oversensitivity. Adler also argued that the typical suicide suffers from a limited “social interest”—the importance of social interest was the doctrine Adler had attempted to spread in the 1930s in the face of European nationalist totalitarianism—and has a selfish motive to hurt others by his act; the suicide “hurts others by dreaming himself into injuries or by administering them to himself.” This damaging pattern is not seen as morally blameworthy, however, but as the occasion for therapy directed toward expanding the patient’s social interests.

Alfred Adler, “Suicide,” from Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Later Writings, eds. Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 248-252.



The frequent fact of suicide is surrounded by mystery for the average observer. When he is not personally touched by the suicide of someone near to him, he usually resorts to a superficial explanation which occasionally makes the suicide comprehensible, but usually leaves it incomprehensible. The members of the suicide’s intimate and wider circles also usually find the occurrence strange and inexplicable. This does not seem very significant, since, in general, an understanding of human nature and thinking directed toward prophylaxis cannot be taken for granted.

Attempts at explanation often begin with the frequency of suicide among mentally disordered individuals, especially depressed persons, to all of whom suicide appears as a way out of their distress even if by their words they seem to reject it. Thus the approximately normal person is inclined to regard suicide as an entirely pathological phenomenon.

 Situational Factors

Even so, there are certain situations from which the normal person regards suicide as the only way out. These are situations which are too distressing and unalterable, such as torment without any prospect for relief, inhumanly cruel attacks, fear of discovery of disgraceful or criminal actions, suffering of incurable and extremely painful diseases, etc. Surprisingly enough, the number of suicides actually committed for such reasons is not great.

Among the so-called causes for suicide, disregarding the cases of the psychologically ill, loss of money and unpayable debts take the first place. This gives us much to think about. Disappointed and unhappy love follow in frequency. Further frequent causes are permanent employment, for which the individual may or may not be responsible, and justified or unjustified reproaches.

Another cause is suicide epidemics which, puzzling as this may be, do occasionally happen. Harakiri, although on the decline, still exists among the Japanese. Among women and girls, suicide or attempted suicide takes place relatively frequently at the time of menstruation. Lastly, suicides increase strikingly after the age of fifty. All these facts ought to be explicable through Individual Psychology.

It is not surprising that qualified and unqualified circles often endeavor to work for the reduction of suicides. So far as we can see, such attempts have not succeeded in reducing the suicide rate. This is because individuals who turn to associations for the prevention of suicide would only be those who still regard the future with a certain amount of hope. In our time, the number of suicides is unchanged, possibly even increasing.

 The Interpersonal Factor

The frequency of suicide is a serious accusation against the none-too-great social interest of mankind. In view of this, a comprehensive exploration of this puzzling phenomenon is urgently needed.

Among inner, endogenous causes, Individual Psychology considers only the style of life which is established out of heredity and environmental influences by the individual’s own creative power with his incomplete, humanly limited insight. In addition, one must determine the external, exogenous cause which reveals the inadequate preparation of the individual in question for the urgent situation before him. When the self-consistent life style thus clashes with the external situation, the extent to which the individual stands the test of living with other in society becomes apparent.

Observations of Individual Psychology have shown that every step of an individual is directed toward the successful solution of a presently imminent task in accordance with the total conception of his self-consistency. What the individual considers success is always a matter of his subjective opinion. Our experience has also shown that all tasks which the individual may have to meet require, without exception, adequate social interest for their correct solution. Each individual is so joined to society that he can make no movement, think no thought, and express no feeling without testifying to the degree of his connectedness with society, to hi social interest. From this is follows that suicide is a solution only for one who in the face of an urgent problem has arrived at the end of his limited social interest.

This coming to the end of their limited social interest shows itself in all failures, be they active or passive, in their greater development of the inferiority complex. That the suicide departs from the line of social interest is quite obvious. All forms of working together, of living together, and of fellowship are lacking. Further, it must certainly be admitted that this departure occurs in an active way. The activity has a particular curve, however, in that it runs apart from social life and against it, and that it harms the individual himself, not without giving pain and sorrow to others.

The suicide generally gives little or no (conscious) thought to the shock which he causes others. But this difficulty in the way of a further understanding can be resolved. Could it not be that he would have to eliminate others from his thoughts before he could commit suicide? In some cases his social interest might well be great enough for that. Moreover one finds quite frequently, by contrast, that in his last letter or words the suicide hints as asking forgiveness for the sorrow he has afflicted. The movement and the direction of the suicide cannot avoid the fact of sorrow to another. And perhaps there are many on the brink of suicide who, through greater social interest, are deterred from afflicting this sorrow to another.

The “other” is probably never lacking. Usually it is the one who suffers most by the suicide.

Predisposing Factors

 Individual Psychology continuously seeks to understand the unity and self-consistency of the individual. We are prepared for failures and try to prevent them, always in the conviction that the origin of a misconception of life and its organization can be traced back into early childhood. Therefore we must try to find the type of child which can be regarded as the potential suicide type. Studies of the past life and the childhood of suicides and of those who have attempted it always bring to light those traits which we have found in similar forms in all those failures who combine lesser social interest with a relatively large degree of activity. Suicidal persons have always been problem children, spoiled at least by one side of the family, very complacent, and oversensitive. Very often they showed hurt feelings to an unusual degree. In case of a loss or defeat, they were always poor losers. While they seldom made a direct attack against others, they always showed a life style which attempted to influence others through increased complaining, sadness, and suffering. A tendency to collapse under psychological pain when confronted with difficult life situations often stood out, in addition to increase ambition, vanity, and consciousness of their value for others. Fantasies of sickness or death, in which the pain of others reaches its highest degree, went parallel with this firm belief in their high values for others, a belief which they usually acquired from the pampering situations of their childhood. I have found similar traits in the early history of cases of depression, whose type borders on that of the suicide, and also of alcoholics and drug addicts.

Among the early childhood expressions of the suicide one also finds the deepest grieving over often negligible matters, strong wishes to become sick or to die when a humiliation is experienced, tantrums with willful self-injury, and an attitude towards others as if it were their duty to fulfill his every wish. Occasionally inclinations toward self-accusation come to the fore which elicit the sympathy of others, deeds of exaggerated foolhardiness which are performed to frighten others, and at times stubborn hunger strikes which intimidate the parents. Sometimes one finds ruses in the nature of a direct or indirect attack against others, acts of aggression followed by suicide, or only fantasies, wishes, and dreams which aim at a direct attach while suicide follows later.

Examples of suicide in the family have an attraction for those of similar tendency, as do the example of friends and well-known persons and special places associated with suicide.


Reduced to the simplest form, the life style of the potential suicide is characterized by the fact that he hurts others by dreaming himself into injuries or by administering them to himself. One will seldom go wrong in determining against whom the attack is aimed when one has found who is actually affected most by it. We find in the suicide the type who thinks too much of himself, too little of others, and who is unable sufficiently to play, function, live, and die with others. Rather, with an exaggerated consciousness of his own worth, he expects with great tension results which are always favorable for him.

The idea of suicide, like all other mistaken solutions of course always breaks out in the face of an urgent confronting exogenous problem for which the individual in question has an insufficient social interest. His greater or lesser activity then determines the direction and development of the symptoms. The symptoms can be done away with through an understanding of the context.

The psychiatrist will do well to keep his diagnosis of a potential suicide to himself, but to take all precautions. He must not tell it to others, but must see to it that something is done for the patient to enable him to find a better, more independent, socially oriented attitude toward life.

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