Category Archives: Europe


from Suicide


Émile Durkheim is widely regarded as the founder of the French school of sociology. He was born in Épinal, Lorraine, to a Jewish family who expected him to become a rabbi like his father. Instead, his success in secular education led him in 1879 to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then considered the best teachers’ college in France, though he grew disenchanted with the school’s emphasis on superficial philosophical generalizations, and turned to sociology with the aim of establishing a rigorous, objective science of society. He became the first French professor of sociology at Bordeaux and taught social philosophy until 1902; in that year, he was appointed a professor of education and sociology at the Sorbonne, where he remained the rest of his life. Durkheim died a year after his only son was killed in World War I. He left behind a committed following of researchers, including Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In his writings, Durkheim was concerned with religion and education as key instruments in achieving moral and societal reform. In the Rules of Sociological Method (1895), he defined a scientific, rigorous method of study for sociology. He argued for the existence of a societal “collective consciousness” that could not be reduced to individual or biological psychology; social environment is therefore a real entity that can be studied on its own merits.

In 1898, Durkheim founded the Année sociologique, which was intended to bring together social science scholars and encourage the field’s specialization. It was the place of the social sciences and educational reform to help society avoid “anomie,” or, as he later called it, social disconnectedness—the absence, conflict, or weakness of norms for conduct. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim postulated religion’s role as the ultimate representation of communal consciousness; religion is the acknowledged binding force in collective participation that exemplifies the force of social bonds. Durkheim’s systematic and rigorous ideas, resisted during his own life, became the basis for modern empirical research in sociology.

In Suicide (1897), the first book-length treatment of this topic, Durkheim analyzes statistical data on suicides among Catholics and Protestants. Durkheim argued that the forces of social integration and regulation play an essential and complex role in the individual decision to end one’s life; these social forces vary with the type of social organization characteristic of a given group. Durkheim divides these forces and the types of suicide they produce into three, or more accurately, four categories. The first type of suicide is “altruistic”; here, the individual is highly integrated into society and rigorously governed by social custom: suicides occur because they are required by the society in certain circumstances, as in the Hindu custom of sati and Japanese suicides of honor. The second type of suicide is “egoistic”: individuals are loosely integrated into the society and do not respond to social regulations and expectations. The third type is “anomic,” which is the case when society itself fails to provide adequate regulation of its members. Durkheim believed that this third type is characteristic of modern industrial society. A fourth type, “fatalistic suicide,” only briefly discussed by Durkheim in a footnote at the end of Chapter 5, is the opposite of the anomic type, occurring when a person is socially oppressed and sees no other escape from an environment of excessive control (the suicides of slaves, of “very young husbands,” and of “the married woman who is childless”), but Durkheim finds this type not of “contemporary importance” and does not discuss it further.

In the first part of these selections from Suicide, beginning with “The General Nature of Suicide as a Social Phenomenon,” Durkheim explores the interaction of social forces in the historical, legal, and sociological contexts of suicide.

In the second section, beginning with Book 3, Chapter 2, Durkheim surveys the history of prohibitions against suicide in Greek, Roman, and Christian societies. He concludes that the reprobation of suicide has become more universal over time. Concerning the time during the decline of the city-states when suicide was temporarily tolerated, Durkheim writes that such societies “cannot be referred to as an example for imitation; for [their toleration of suicide] is clearly interrelated with the serious disturbances which then affected those societies. It is the symptom of a morbid condition.” Durkheim argues that suicide must be considered immoral because it violates the ideal of collective humanity “as conceived by each people at each moment in history.” No man or society, having accepted this ideal once, now has the right to depart from it; “like every ideal, it can be conceived of only as superior to and dominating reality. This ideal even dominates societies, being the aim on which all social activity depends. This is why it is no longer the right of these societies to dispose of this ideal freely . . . they have subjected themselves to the jurisdiction of this ideal and no longer have the right to ignore it; still less to authorize men themselves to do so.” In order for the “religion of humanity” to maintain its (rightful) authority, suicide as a denial of the individual’s submission to the interests of all human kind “must be classed among immoral acts.”

The third part of this selection, from Book 3, Chapter 3, concerns the changes in modern society that Durkheim believes are necessary to prevent further increases in egoistic and anomic suicides, which are each conditioned by excess individuation. Durkheim argues that in modern society, the formerly central institutions of state, religion, and family no longer provide the constant regulation and power to encourage thorough collective integration what they once did; having lost their socially organizing power, they cannot be reinvested with the compelling collective consciousnesses they once represented. According to Durkheim, “since occupational life is almost the whole of life,” corporations are the best candidates for a type of institution that could persuasively demand the devotion of individuals to a collective consciousness. He coins the term “occupational decentralization” to refer to vast simultaneous conglomeration and internal specialization of corporate activity. “Occupational group” would become the new basis of political organization, and each corporation a “definite institution, a collective personality, with its customs and traditions, its rights and duties, its unity.” The only type of anomie that Durkheim believes would be unaffected by these societal changes is “conjugal anomy.” He argues that divorce should be made more difficult and that, in order to make the constraints of matrimony more agreeable to women, the opportunities for women in society would need to change so that women might come to be as psychologically integrated in collective society as men are.

Émile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Introduction: The Social Element of Suicide; Book 2, Chapter 3; Book 3, Chapter 1, Part Iv, trs. John Spaulding and George Simpson, ed. George Simpson (New York: The Free Press, 1951), pp. 297-300, 326-342, 370-392.




The Social Element Of Suicide

Now that we know the factors in terms of which the social suicide-rate varies, we may define the reality to which this rate corresponds and which it expresses numerically.


The individual conditions on which suicide might, a priori, be supposed to depend, are of two sorts.

There is first the external situation of agent. Sometimes men who kill themselves have had family sorrow or disappointments to their pride, sometimes they have had to suffer poverty or sickness, at others they have had some moral fault with which to reproach themselves, etc.  But we have seen that these individual peculiarities could not explain the social suicide-rate; for the latter varies in considerable proportions, whereas the different combinations of circumstances which constitute the immediate antecedents of individual cases of suicide retain approximately the same relative frequency. They are therefore not the determining causes of the act which they precede. Their occasionally important role in the premeditation of suicide is no proof of being a causal one. Human deliberations, in fact, so far as reflective consciousness affects them are often only purely formal, with no object but confirmation of a resolve previously formed for reasons unknown to consciousness.

Besides, the circumstances are almost infinite in number which are supposed to cause suicide because they rather frequently accompany it. One man kills himself in the midst of affluence, another in the lap of poverty; one was unhappy in his home, and another had just ended by divorce a marriage which was making him unhappy. In one case a soldier ends his life after having been punished for an offense he did not commit; in another, a criminal whose crime has remained unpunished kills himself. The most varied and even the most contradictory events of life may equally serve as pretexts for suicide. This suggests that none of them is the specific cause. Could we perhaps at least ascribe causality to those qualities known to be common to all? But are there any such? At best one might say that they usually consist of disappointments, of sorrows, without any possibility of deciding how intense the grief must be to have such tragic significance. Of no disappointment in life, no matter how significant, can we say in advance that it could not possibly make existence intolerable; and, on the other hand, there is none which must necessarily have this effect.  We see some men resist horrible misfortune, while others kill themselves after slight troubles.  Moreover, we have shown that those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most.  Rather it is too great comfort which turns a man against himself.  Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.  At least, if it really sometimes occurs that the victim’s personal situation is the effective cause of his resolve, such cases are very rare indeed and accordingly cannot explain the social suicide-rate.

Accordingly, even those who have ascribed most influence to individual conditions have sought these conditions less in such external incidents than in the intrinsic nature of the person, that is, his biological constitution and the physical concomitants on which it depends. Thus, suicide has been represented as the product of a certain temperament, an episode of neurasthenia, subject to the effects of the same factors as neurasthenia. Yet we have found no immediate and regular relationship between neurasthenia and the social suicide-rate. The two facts even vary at times in inverse proportion to one another, one being at its minimum just when and where the other is at its height. We have not found, either, any definite relation between the variations of suicide and the conditions of physical environment supposed to have most effect on the nervous system, such as race, climate, temperature. Obviously, though the neuropath may show some inclination to suicide under certain conditions, he is not necessarily destined to kill himself; and the influence of cosmic factors is not enough to determine in just this sense the very general tendencies of his nature.

Wholly different are the results we obtained when we forgot the individual and sought the causes of the suicidal aptitude of each society in the nature of the societies themselves. The relations of suicide to certain states of social environment are as direct and constant as its relations to facts of a biological and physical character were seen to be uncertain and ambiguous. Here at last we are face to face with real laws, allowing us to attempt a methodical classification of types of suicide. The sociological causes thus determined by us have even explained these various concurrences often attributed to the influence of material causes, and in which a proof of this influence has been sought. If women kill themselves much less often than men, it is because they are much less involved than men in collective existence; thus they feel its influence—good or evil—less strongly. So it is with old persons and children, though for other reasons. Finally, if suicide increases from January to June but then decreases, it is because social activity shows similar seasonal fluctuations. It is therefore natural that the different effects of social activity should be subject to an identical rhythm, and consequently be more pronounced during the former of these two periods. Suicide is one of them.

The conclusion from all these facts is that the social suicide-rate can be explained only sociologically. At any given moment the moral constitution of society establishes the contingent of voluntary deaths. There is, therefore, for each people a collective force of a definite amount of energy, impelling men to self-destruction. The victim’s acts which at first seem to express only his personal temperament are really the supplement and prolongation of a social condition which they express externally.

This answers the question posed at the beginning of this work. It is not mere metaphor to say of each human society that it has a greater or lesser aptitude for suicide; the expression is based on the nature of things. Each social group really has a collective inclination for the act, quite its own, and the source of all individual inclination, rather than their result. It is made up of the currents of egoism, altruism or anomy running through the society under consideration with the tendencies to languorous melancholy, active renunciation or exasperated weariness derivative from these currents. These tendencies of the whole social body, by affecting individuals, cause them to commit suicide. The private experiences usually thought to be the proximate causes of suicide have only the influences borrowed from the victim’s moral predisposition, itself an echo of the moral state of society. To explain his detachment from life the individual accuses his most immediately surrounding circumstances; life is sad to him because he is sad. Of course his sadness comes to him from without in one sense, however not from one or another incident of his career but rather from the group to which he belongs.  This is why there is nothing which cannot serve as an occasion for suicide. It all depends on the intensity with which suicidogenetic causes have affected the individual.

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Filed under Durkheim, Emile, Europe, Selections, Societal Organizations, The Modern Era


from Thus Spake Zarathustra:    Voluntary Death
from The Twilight of the Idols: A Moral    for Doctors


Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential and controversial figures in German philosophical thought, was born in Rocken, Prussia, and studied theology and classical philology at the University of Bonn. One year later, he gave up theology, having lost his faith, and moved to the University of Leipzig, where he discovered the works of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (q.v.) and the German composer Richard Wagner. These two figures, as well as Greek tragedians like Aeschylus, represented the most important influences on Nietzsche’s early thought. At age 24, Nietzsche became a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, where he continued to utilize pagan themes in developing his philosophy. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), these influences coalesce in his theory of Greek literature, which asserts that the two opposing forces in life, the Apollonian or rational, and the Dionysian or passionate, must come into momentary harmony with the “Primordial Mystery.”

In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85), Nietzsche develops many of the philosophical tenets central to his thought. Other significant works by Nietzsche include Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Nietzsche’s views have been seen as influencing German attitudes in World War I and in providing the philosophical underpinnings for the Third Reich, even though Nietzsche was severely critical of German culture (a view that had undermined his friendship with Wagner) and would have considered the ways in which Nazism co-opted his views a complete distortion. Nietzsche suffered from poor health for most of his life; in 1889, he experienced a severe mental breakdown, perhaps associated with syphilis, from which he never recovered. He died on August 25, 1900.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche introduced his concepts of the “superman” (Übermensch), “the will to power,” and “the death of God.” One must find value in life without the hope of a future reward in Heaven. The new science of Darwinism had done away with the notion of a watchful Creator; hence, a new order of supermen was needed to create value for themselves through the will to power, a fearless love for every aspect of life and fate, free from self-delusion or life-denying morality. In the following excerpts from Thus Spake Zarathustra, written in poetic prose, and The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche explores the notion of voluntary death within the new ethics of the Übermensch: Death should not so much be something that happens to us beyond our control as a matter of chance or surprise, but something we choose freely and deliberately, a choice that becomes a defining act of our lives. Entirely in contrast to Christianity, Nietzsche sees suicide as a positive act: “The man who does away with himself,” Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Idols, “performs the most estimable of deeds.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra,  Ch. 21, “Voluntary Death.”  tr. Thomas Common. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 11, ed. Oscar Levy. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1909-11, 1964, pp. 82-85; also available from Project Gutenberg Release #1998. The Twilight of the Idolstr. Anthony M. Ludovici. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 16, ed. Oscar Levy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927, pp. 88-91.




Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange soundeth the precept: “Die at the right time!

Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra.

To be sure, he who never liveth at the right time, how could he ever die at the right time? Would that he might never be born!—Thus do I advise the superfluous ones.

But even the superfluous ones make much ado about their death, and even the hollowest nut wanteth to be cracked.

Every one regardeth dying as a great matter: but as yet death is not a festival. Not yet have people learned to inaugurate the finest festivals.

The consummating death I show unto you, which becometh a stimulus and promise to the living.

His death, dieth the consummating one triumphantly, surrounded by hoping and promising ones.

Thus should one learn to die; and there should be no festival at which such a dying one doth not consecrate the oaths of the living!

Thus to die is best; the next best, however, is to die in battle, and

sacrifice a great soul.

But to the fighter equally hateful as to the victor, is your grinning death which stealeth nigh like a thief—and yet cometh as master.

My death, praise I unto you, the voluntary death, which cometh unto me

because I want it.

And when shall I want it?—He that hath a goal and an heir, wanteth death at the right time for the goal and the heir.

And out of reverence for the goal and the heir, he will hang up no more

withered wreaths in the sanctuary of life.

Verily, not the rope-makers will I resemble: they lengthen out their cord, and thereby go ever backward.

Many a one, also, waxeth too old for his truths and triumphs; a toothless mouth hath no longer the right to every truth.

And whoever wanteth to have fame, must take leave of honour betimes, and practise the difficult art of—going at the right time.

One must discontinue being feasted upon when one tasteth best: that is

known by those who want to be long loved.

Sour apples are there, no doubt, whose lot is to wait until the last day of autumn: and at the same time they become ripe, yellow, and shrivelled.

In some ageth the heart first, and in others the spirit. And some are

hoary in youth, but the late young keep long young.

To many men life is a failure; a poison-worm gnaweth at their heart. Then let them see to it that their dying is all the more a success.

Many never become sweet; they rot even in the summer. It is cowardice that holdeth them fast to their branches.

Far too many live, and far too long hang they on their branches. Would

that a storm came and shook all this rottenness and worm-eatenness from the tree!

Would that there came preachers of SPEEDY death! Those would be the appropriate storms and agitators of the trees of life! But I hear only

slow death preached, and patience with all that is “earthly.”

Ah! ye preach patience with what is earthly? This earthly is it that hath too much patience with you, ye blasphemers!

Verily, too early died that Hebrew whom the preachers of slow death honour: and to many hath it proved a calamity that he died too early.

As yet had he known only tears, and the melancholy of the Hebrews, together with the hatred of the good and just—the Hebrew Jesus: then was he seized with the longing for death.

Had he but remained in the wilderness, and far from the good and just!

Then, perhaps, would he have learned to live, and love the earth—and laughter also!

Believe it, my brethren! He died too early; he himself would have disavowed his doctrine had he attained to my age! Noble enough was he to disavow!

But he was still immature. Immaturely loveth the youth, and immaturely also hateth he man and earth. Confined and awkward are still his soul and the wings of his spirit.

But in man there is more of the child than in the youth, and less of melancholy: better understandeth he about life and death.

Free for death, and free in death; a holy Naysayer, when there is no longer time for Yea: thus understandeth he about death and life.

That your dying may not be a reproach to man and the earth, my friends: that do I solicit from the honey of your soul.

In your dying shall your spirit and your virtue still shine like an evening after-glow around the earth: otherwise your dying hath been unsatisfactory.

Thus will I die myself, that ye friends may love the earth more for my sake; and earth will I again become, to have rest in her that bore me.

Verily, a goal had Zarathustra; he threw his ball. Now be ye friends the heirs of my goal; to you throw I the golden ball.

Best of all, do I see you, my friends, throw the golden ball! And so tarry I still a little while on the earth—pardon me for it!

Thus spake Zarathustra.



The sick man is a parasite of society. In certain cases it is indecent to go on living. To continue to vegetate in a state of cowardly dependence upon doctors and special treatments, once the meaning of life, the right to life, has been lost, ought to be regarded with the greatest contempt by society. The doctors, for their part, should be the agents for imparting this contempt—they should no longer prepare prescriptions, but should every day administer a fresh dose of disgust to their patients. A new responsibility of ruthlessly suppressing and eliminating degenerate Life, in all cases in which the highest interests of life itself, of ascending life, demand such a course—for instance in favour of the right of procreation, in favour of the right of the right of being born, in favour of the right to live. One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly. Death should be chosen freely,—death at the right time, faced clearly and joyfully and embraced while one is surrounded by one’s children and other witnesses. It should be affected in such a way that a proper farewell is still possible, that he who is about to take leave of us is still himself, and really capable not only of valuing what he has achieved and willed in life, but also of summing-up the value of life itself. Everything precisely the opposite of the ghastly comedy which Christianity has made of the hour of death. We should never forgive Christianity for having so abused the weakness of the dying man as to do violence to his conscience, or for having used his manner of dying as a means of valuing both man and his past!—In spite of all cowardly prejudices, it is our duty, in this respect, above all to reinstate the proper—that is to say, the physiological, aspect of so-called Natural death, which after all is perfectly “unnatural” and nothing else than suicide. One never perishes through anybody’s fault but one’s own. The only thing is that the death which takes place in the most contemptible circumstances, the death that is not free, the death which occurs at the wrong time, is the death of a coward. Out of the very love one bears to life, one should wish death to be different from this—that is to say, free, deliberate, and neither a matter of chance nor of surprise. Finally let me whisper a word of advice to our friends the pessimists and all other decadents. We have not the power to prevent ourselves from being born: but this error—for sometimes it is an error—can be rectified if we choose. The man who does away with himself, performs the most estimable of deeds: he almost deserves to live for having done so. Society—nay, life itself, derives more profit from such a deed than from any sort of life spent in renunciation, anæmia and other virtues,—at least the suicide frees others from the sight of him, at least he removes one objection against life. Pessimism pur et vert, can be proved only by the self refutation of the pessimists themselves: one should go a step further in one’s consistency; one should not merely deny life with “The World as Will and Idea,” as Schopenhauer did; one should in the first place deny Schopenhauer…. Incidentally, Pessimism, however infectious it may be, does not increase the morbidness of an age or of a whole species; it is rather the expression of that morbidness. One falls a victim to it in the same way as one falls a victim to cholera; one must already be predisposed to the disease. Pessimism in itself does not increase the number of the world’s decadents by a single unit. Let me remind you of the statistical fact that in those years in which cholera rages, the total number of deaths does not exceed that of other years.


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Filed under Dignity, Europe, Nietzsche, Friedrich, Selections, The Modern Era


from Philosophy of the Unconscious


Born in Berlin in 1842, Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann initially intended to embark on a military career. However, plagued by a problem with his knee, he turned to philosophy, obtaining a doctorate from the University of Rostock.

Hartmann wrote voluminously, producing some 12,000 pages, later published in selected form in 10 volumes. Hartmann’s works include historical and critical works (among them studies of Kant [q.v.], Schelling, Schopenhauer [q.v.], Hegel [q.v.], and extended polemics against Nietzsche [q.v.]), popular works, and systematic works including self-criticism originally published anonymously. His wife Agnes Taubert was co-author of the work Pessimism and its Opponents (Berlin 1873). Hartmann’s thought is based on a metaphysics of the absolute associated with Hegel and Schopenhauer.

Hartmann’s first and most celebrated work Philosophy of the Unconscious (Berlin, 1869), selections from a chapter of which is presented here, develops an extensive and unique treatment of universal suicide. It is heavily influenced by Buddhist thought. Hartmann posits three stages of illusion to which humanity is subject, around which Philosophy of the Unconscious is structured: (1) that “happiness is considered as having been actually attained at the present stage of the world’s development, accordingly attainable by the individual of today in his earthly life”—this illusion is in Hartmann’s view exhibited particularly prominently in the ancient world and in childhood; (2) that “happiness is conceived attainable by the individual in a transcendent life after death,” an illusion characteristic of the Middle Ages and youth; and (3) that “happiness [is] relegated to the future of the world,” an illusion associated with modern times and adulthood. Hartmann opposes the suicide of the individual as selfish and ethically reprehensible, but he argues for the release of the Unconscious from its sufferings, when humanity—all humanity, everywhere—unites in the collective understanding that by willing its own nonexistence, the world-process will cease. Future human existence is thus precluded. Humankind and the world in general will thus be released from the misery of existence once and for all in the “cosmic-universal negation of will as the act that forms the end of the process, as the last moment, after which there shall be no more volition, activity, or time.”

Hartmann died in Berlin in 1906.

Eduard von Hartmann, Philosophy of the Unconscioustr. William Chatterton Coupland, Vol III. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1893, pp. 98-100, 120-142; footnotes and internal references deleted.



This perception, that from the point of view of the ego of the individual the denial of the will or forsaking of the world and renunciation of life is the only rational course, Stirner entirely misses.  It is, however, an infallible specific for an over-balanced egoism.  Whoever has once realized the preponderating pain that every individual must endure, with or without knowledge, in his life, will soon contemn and scorn the standpoint of the self-preserving and would-be enjoying—in a word, self-affirming ego.  He who has come to hold lightly his egoism and his ego will hardly insist upon the same as the absolute pivot on which everything must turn, will rate personal sacrifice less highly than usual, will less reluctantly accept the result of an investigation which exhibits the Ego as a mere phenomenon of a Being that for all individuals is one and the same.

Contempt of the world and life is the easiest path to self-denial; only by this path has a morality of self-denial, like the Christian and Buddhist, been historically possible.  In these fruits which it bears for facilitating the infinitely difficult self-renunciation lies the immense and hardly to be sufficiently estimated ethical value of Pessimism.

But lastly, had Stirner approached the direct philosophical investigation of the Idea of the Ego, he would have seen that this idea is just as unsubstantial and brain-created a phantom as, for instance, the Idea of honour or of right, and that the only being which answers to the idea of the inner cause of my activity is something non-individual, the Only Unconscious, which therefore answers just as well to Peter’s idea of his ego as Paul’s idea of his ego.  On this deepest of all bases rests only the esoteric ethics of Buddhism, not the Christian ethics.  If one has firmly and thoughtfully made this cognition his own, that one and the same Being feels my and thy pain, my and thy pleasure, only accidentally through the intervention of different brains, then is the exclusive egoism radically broken, that is only shaken, though deeply shaken, by contempt of the world and of life; then is the standpoint of Stirner finally overcome, to which one must at some time have entirely given adhesion in order to feel the greatness of the advance; then first is Egoism sublated as a moment in the consciousness of forming a link in the world-process, in which it finds its necessary and relatively, i.e., to a certain degree, authorised place.

There occurs, namely at the end of each of the preceding stages of the illusion, and before the discovery of the next, the voluntary surrender of individual existence—suicide, as a necessary consequence.  Both the life-weary heathen, and the Christian, despairing at once of the world and his faith, must in consistency do away with themselves; or if, like Schopenhauer, they believe themselves unable to attain by this means the end of the abolition of individual existence, they must at any rate divert their will from life to quietism and continence, or even asceticism.  It is the height of self-deception to see in this saving of the dear Ego from the discomfort of existence anything else than the grossest selfism, than a highly refined Epicureanism, that has only taken a direction contrary to instinct through a view of life opposed to instinct.  In all Quietism, whether with brutish inertness it is content merely to eat and drink, or loses itself in idyllic love of Nature, or in reverie natural or artificially induced (by narcotics) passively revels in the images of a luxuriant fancy, or surrounded by the refinements of a luxurious life, languidly drives away ennui with the choicest morsels of the arts and sciences—in all this Quietism the Epicurean trait is unmistakable, the inordinate desire to pass life in the manner most agreeable to the individual constitution, with a minimum of effort and displeasure, unconcerned about the thereby neglected duties to fellow-men and society.  But even asceticism, which is apparently the counterpart of Egoism, is also always egoistic, even when it does not, like the Christian, hope for reward in an individual immortality, but merely hopes, by the temporary assumption of a certain pain, to attain the shortening of the evil of life and individual deliverance from all continuation of life after death (new birth, &c.)  In the suicide and in the ascetic the self-denial is as little deserving of admiration as in the sick person who, to escape the prospect of a perpetual toothache, reasonably prefers the painful drawing of the tooth.  In both cases there is only well-calculated egoism without any ethical value; rather an egoism that in all such situations of life is immoral, save when the possibility of fulfilling one’s duties to one’s relatives and society is entirely cut off….

The Goal of Evolution and the Significance of Consciousness
(Transition to Practical Philosophy)

We saw that the chain of final causes is not, like that of phenomenal causality, to be conceived as endless, because every end in respect of the following one in the chain is only means; therefore in the end-positing understanding the whole future series of ends must always be present, and yet a completed endlessness of ends cannot be present in it.

Accordingly the series of final causes must be finite, i.e., they must have a last or ultimate end, which is the goal of all the intermediate ends.  Further, we have seen that justice and morality by their very nature cannot be final ends, but only intermediate ends; and the last chapter has taught us that also positive happiness cannot be the goal of the world-process, because not only is it not attained at every stage of the process, but even its contrary, misery and unblessedness, is at all times attained, which besides increases in the course of evolution by destruction of the illusion and with the heightening of consciousness.

It is altogether absurd to conceive evolution as end in itself, i.e., to ascribe to it an absolute value; for evolution is still only the sum of its moments; and if the several moments are not only worthless, but even objectionable, so too is their sum, the process.  Many indeed call freedom the goal of the process.  To me freedom is nothing positive, but something private, the absence of constraint.  I cannot understand how this is to be regarded as goal of the evolution, if the Unconscious is one and all, and therefore there is no one from whom it could suffer constraint.  If, however, there is anything positive in the notion of freedom, it can only be the consciousness of inner necessity, the formal in the rational, as Hegel says.  Then is an increase of freedom identical with an increase of consciousness.  Here we come to a point already frequently mentioned.  If the goal of evolution is anywhere to be looked for, it is certainly on the path where we, so far as we can overlook the course of the evolution, perceive a decided and continuous progress, a gradual advance.

This is only and solely the case in the development of consciousness, of conscious intelligence, but here also in unbroken ascent from the origin of the primitive cell to the standpoint of humanity of the present day, and with the highest probability farther as long as the world lasts.  Thus Hegel says: “All that happens in heaven and on earth happens eternally; the life of God and all that takes place in time has this sole aim, that the spirit attain self-knowledge, become its own object, find itself become independent, unite itself with itself; it is duplication, alienation, but in order to find itself to be enabled to come to itself.”  Likewise Schelling: “To the Transcendental philosophy Nature is nothing but the organ of self-consciousness, and everything in Nature is only necessary because only through such a Nature can self-consciousness be achieved”; “and consciousness is that with which the whole creation is concerned”.  Individuation, with its train of egoism and wrong-doing and wrong-suffering, serves the origination of consciousness; the acquisitive impulse serves the enhancement of consciousness by the liberation of the mental energies through increasing opulence, likewise vanity, ambition, and the lust of fame by spurring on the mental activity; sexual love serves it by improving mental capacity; in short, all those useful instincts that bring the individual far more pain than pleasure may often impose the greatest sacrifices.  By the way of the unfolding of consciousness must then the goal of evolution be sought, and consciousness is beyond a doubt the proximate end of Nature—of the world.  The question still remains open whether consciousness is really ultimate end, therefore also self-end, or whether it again serves only another end?

One’s own object consciousness can assuredly not be.  With pain it is born, with pain it consumes its existence, with pain it purchases its elevation; and what does it offer in compensation for all this?  A vain self-mirroring!  Were the world in other respects fair and precious, the empty self-satisfaction in the contemplation of its reflected image in consciousness might at any rate be excused, although it would always remain an infirmity; but an out-and-out miserable world, that can never have any joy in the sight of itself, but must condemn its own existence as soon as it understands itself, could such a world be said to have a rational, final, and proper end in the ideal apparent duplication of itself in the mirror of consciousness?  Is there then not enough of real wretchedness that it should be repeated in the magic lantern of consciousness?  No; Consciousness cannot possibly be the ultimate object of the world-evolution guided by the all-wisdom of the Unconscious.  That would only mean doubling the torment, preying on one’s own vitals.  Still less can one suppose that the purely formal determination of action according to laws of conscious reason can be a rational man’s aim; for why should the reason determine action, or why should action be determined by reason apart from the diminution of pain thereby to be induced?  Were there not painful being and willing, no reason need trouble itself about its determination.  Consciousness and the continuous enhancement of the same in the process of the world’s development can thus in no case be end in itself; it can merely be means to another end, if it is not to float aimlessly in the air, whereby then also regressively the whole process would cease to be evolution, and the whole chain of natural ends would hang aimlessly in the air; thus, properly speaking, would, as ends, be annulled and declared irrational.  This assumption contradicts the all-wisdom of the Unconscious, therefore it only remains for us to search for the end which the development of consciousness subserves as means.

But where to get such an end?  The observation of the process itself, and of that which mainly grows and progresses in it, leads only to the knowledge that it is Consciousness; morality, justice, and freedom have already been set aside.

However much we may ponder and reflect, we can discover nothing to which we could assign an absolute value, nothing that we could regard as end in itself, nothing that so affects the world-essence in its inmost core, as Happiness.  After happiness strives everything that lives, according to endæmonist principles motives influence us, and our actions are consciously or unconsciously guided.  On happiness in this or that fashion all systems of practical philosophy are grounded, however much they may think to deny their first principle.  The endeavour after happiness is the most deeply rooted impulse, is the essence of the will itself seeking satisfaction.  And yet the investigations of the last chapter have shown that this endeavour is exposed to objections; that the hope of its fulfilment is an illusion; and that its consequence is the pain of disillusion, its truth the misery of existence; have taught us that the progressive evolution of consciousness has the negative result of gradually perceiving the illusory character of that hope, the folly of that endeavour.  Between the will striving after absolute satisfaction and felicity and the intelligence emancipating itself more and more from the impulse through consciousness a deeply pervading antagonism cannot therefore be mistaken.  The higher and more perfectly consciousness develops in the course of the world-process, the more is it emancipated from the blind vassalage with which it at first followed the irrational will; the more it sees through the illusions aroused in it by impulse for the cloaking of this irrationality, the more does it assume a hostile position in opposition to the will struggling for positive happiness, in which it combats it step by step in the course of history, breaks through the ramparts of illusions behind which it is entrenched one after the other, and will not have drawn its last consequences until it has completely annihilated it, in that after the destruction of every illusion only the knowledge remains that every volition leads to unblessedness, and only renunciation to the best attainable state, painlessness.  This victorious contest of consciousness with the will as it empirically meets our eyes as result of the world-process, is now, however, anything but accidental; it is ideally contained in consciousness, and is necessarily posited along with its development.  For we saw that the essence of consciousness is emancipation of the intellect from the will, whereas in the Unconscious the idea only appears as servitor of the will, because there is nothing but the will to which it can owe its origin, being incapable of self-origination.

Further, we know that in the sphere of ideation the logical, rational, rules, which is intrinsically just as repugnant to the will as the will to it; whence we conclude that if the idea has only attained the necessary degree of independence, it will have to condemn everything contra-rational (anti-logical) that it finds in the irrational (alogical) will, and to annihilate it.  Thirdly, we know from the foregoing chapter that there follows from volition always more pain than pleasure; that therefore the will that wills happiness attains the contrary, unhappiness; therefore most irrationally and for its proper torment digs its teeth into its own flesh, and yet on account of its unreason can be taught by no experience to desist from its unblessed willing.  From these three premises it necessarily follows that consciousness, so far as it attains the necessary clearness, activity, and fullness, must also more and more perceive, and accordingly contest to the last, the irrationality of volition and endeavour after happiness.  This contest, hitherto recognized by us only a posteriori, was accordingly not an accidental, but a necessary result of the creation of consciousness; it lay therein a priori preformed.  But now, if consciousness is the proximate end of Nature or the world; if we necessarily need for consciousness a further end, and can absolutely think no other true end than the greatest possible happiness; if, on the other hand, an endeavour after positive happiness that is identical with volition is preposterous because it only attains unblessedness, and the greatest possible attainable state of happiness is painlessness; if, lastly, it lies in the notion of consciousness to have for result the emancipation of the intellect from the will, the combating and final annihilation of willing, should it be any longer doubtful that the all-knowing Unconscious thinking end and means at once has created consciousness for that very reason, to redeem the will from the unblessedness of its willing, from which it cannot redeem itself,—that the real end of the world-process, to which consciousness serves as final means, is this, to realize the greatest possible attainable state of happiness, namely, that of painlessness?

We have seen that in the existing world everything is arranged in the wisest and best manner, and that it may be looked upon as the best of all possible worlds, but that nevertheless it is thoroughly wretched, and worse than none at all.  This was only to be comprehended in such wise, that, although the “What and How” in the world (its essence) might be determined by an all-wise Reason, yet the “That” of the world (its existence) must be posited by something absolutely irrational, and this could only be the will.  This consideration is for the rest only the same applied to the world as a whole that we have long known as applied to the individual.  The atom of body is attractive power, its “What and How,” i.e., attraction according to this or that law, is Presentation; its “That,” its existence, its reality, its force, is will.  Thus also the world is what it is and how it is as presentation of the Unconscious, and the unconscious idea has as servant of the will, to which it itself is indebted for actual existence, and as compared with which it has no independence, also no counsel and no voice in the “That” of the world.  The will is essentially only non-rational (destitute of reason, alogical), but in that it acts, it becomes through the consequences of its volition, irrational (contrary to reason, anti-logical), inasmuch as it attains unblessedness, the contrary of its volition.  Now to bring back this irrational volition, which is guilty of the “That” of the world, this unblessed volition into non-volition and the painlessness of nothingness, this task of the logical in the Unconscious is the determinator of the “What and How” of the world.  For the Reason the question therefore is to repair the mischief done by the irrational Will.  The unconscious idea represents the will, if not positively as will, yet negatively as the negative of the logical, or as its own limit, i.e., as the non-logical; but it has in the first place and as such no power over the will, because it has no independence in respect of it, therefore it must employ an artifice to utilize the blindness of the will, and to give it such a content, that by a peculiar turning back upon itself in individuation it falls into conflict with itself, whose result is consciousness, i.e., the creation of an independent power opposed to the will, in which it can now begin the contest with the will.  Thus the world-process appears as a perpetual struggle of the logical with the non-logical, ending with the conquest of the latter.  If this conquest were impossible, if the process were not at the same time development to a fairly beckoning goal, if it were interminable, or even one that exhausted itself in blind necessity or contingency, so that all wit would in vain endeavour to steer the ship into harbour, then, and only then, would this world be really absolutely cheerless, a hell without an exit, and dumb resignation the only philosophy.  But we who perceive in Nature and history only a single grand and marvelous process of development, we believe in a final victory of the ever more radiantly shining reason over the unreason of blind volition; we believe in a goal of the process that brings us release from the torment of existence, and to whose induction and acceleration we too may contribute our mite in the service of reason.

The main difficulty consists in this, how the termination of this contest, the final redemption from the misery of volition and existence into the painlessness of non-willing and non-being, in short, how the entire annulling of volition by consciousness is to be conceived.  There is only one attempt to solve this problem known to me, namely, that of Schopenhauer, in sects. 68-71 of the first volume of the “World as Will and Idea,” which essentially agrees with the similar but more obscure designs of the mystical ascetics of all ages, and of the doctrine of Buddha, as Schopenhauer himself very plainly shows.

The main point of this theory consists in the assumption that the individual, in virtue of the individual cognition of the misery of existence and the unreason of volition, is able to cause his personal willing to cease, and thereby to be individually annihilated after death, or, as Buddhism expressed it, to be no more born again.  It is obvious that this assumption is altogether incompatible with the fundamental principles of Schopenhauer, and only his inability to grasp the notion of development renders explicable the shortsightedness which made it impossible for him to get rid of this palpable inconsistency in his system.  This inconsequence must here be indicated very briefly.—The will is for him the ἕν καì πâν, the sole being of the world, and the individual only subjective appearance, in strictness never objectively actual phenomenon of this essence.  But even if it were the latter, how should it be possible for the individual to negate his individual will as a whole, not merely theoretically but also practically, as his individual volition is only a ray of that Only Will?  Schopenhauer himself rightly declares that in suicide the negation of the will is not attained, but it is said to be attained in the highest conceivable degree in voluntary starvation.  That sounds indeed almost absurd, if one remembers his declaration “that the body is the will itself, objectively regarded as a phenomenon in space,” whence it immediately follows that with the annulling of the individual will, also its appearance in space, the body must disappear.  According to our view, with suppression of the individual will at least all the organic functions dependent on the unconscious will, as heart-throb, respiration, &c., must instantly cease, and the body collapse as corpse.  That this too is empirically impossible will be doubted by nobody; but whoever is obliged to first kill his body by refusal of food proves by that very act he is not able to deny and abolish his unconscious will to live.

But supposing the impossible to be possible, what would be the consequence?  One of the many rays or individual objectifications of the One Will, that which related to this individual, would be withdrawn from its actuality, and this man be dead.  That is, however, no more and no less than happens at every decease, no matter to what cause it is due, and to the Only Will the consequences would have been the same if a tile had killed that man; it continues after, as before, with unenfeebled energy, with undiminished avidity, to lay hold of life wherever it finds it and can lay hold of it; for to acquire experience and become wiser by experience is impossible to it, and it cannot suffer a quantitative abatement of its essence or its substance through the withdrawal of a merely one-sided direction of action.  Therefore the endeavour after individual negation of the will is just as foolish and useless, nay, still more foolish, than suicide, because it only attains the same end more slowly and painfully: abolition of this appearance without altering the essence, which for every abolished individual phenomenon is ceaselessly objectified in new individuals.  Accordingly all asceticism and all endeavour after individual negation of will is perceived and proved to be aberration, although an aberration only in procedure, not in aim.  And because the goal which it endeavours to gain is a right one, it has when rare, by ever whispering in the world’s ear a memento mori, as it were, and provoking a presentiment of the issue of all endeavour, a high value; it becomes, however, injurious and pernicious when, attacking whole nations, it threatens to bring the world-process to stagnation, and to perpetuate the misery of existence.  What would it avail, e.g., if all mankind should die out gradually by sexual continence?  The world as such would still continue to exist, and would find itself substantially in the same position as immediately before the origin of the first man; nay, the Unconscious would even be compelled to employ the next opportunity to fashion a new man or a similar type, and the whole misery would begin over again.

If we look more deeply into the nature of asceticism and personal negation of will, and to the position which it occupies in the historical process in its highest flowering in pure Buddhism, it appears as the issue of the Asiatic pre-Hellenic period of development, as the union of hopelessness for here and hereafter with the still uneradicated egoism which thinks not of the redemption of the whole but only of its own individual redemption.  As we briefly pointed out above the immorality and perniciousness of this standpoint for the whole of humanity and the world-process, so now the folly of the same is revealed for the individual who builds upon it, in that the personal hope of redemption has turned out illusory, consequently every means made use of for this end (thus also Quictism, so far as it is not to serve an individual or nationally coloured Epicureanism, but to lead to redemption through individual negation of the will) is absurd.

Schopenhauer, too, means at bottom something different to what he says.  Before him, too, hovers in shadowy outlines, as the only goal worthy of effort, a universal negation of will, as, e.g., the following passage proves: “After what was said in the second book on the connection of all phenomenon of will (humanity), the weaker reflection of the same, animality (and the still lower forms of objectification of will), would also pass away, as with the full light the penumbræ disappear”.

On the following page he points, among others, to the biblical passage (Rom. Viii. 22) in which it is said, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth together” for the redemption; it expects, however, its redemption “from us which have the first-fruits of the spirit.”  Such deeper perspectives are, however, nevertheless, out of the question for Schopenhauer’s expressly declared standpoint, not only because their consideration would require a surrender of the latter, but also because the following out of them is not at all possible with the unhistorical world-theory of his subjective idealism.  It only becomes so when the reality of time and the positive meaning of the temporal, i.e., historical, development is acknowledged, through whose cumulative progress the prospect opens up of a future attainment of such states of humanity as may enable that which now appears absurd one day to obtain realization.

For him, who has grasped the idea of development, it cannot be doubtful that the end of the contest between consciousness and the will, between the logical and the non-logical, can only lie at the goal of evolution, at the issue of the world-process; for him who before all holds fast to the universality and unity of the Unconscious, the redemption, the turning back of willing into non-willing, is also only to be conceived as act of each and all, not as individual, but only as cosmic-universal negation of will, as the act that forms the end of the process, as the last moment, after which there shall be no more volition, activity, or time (Rev. x. 6).  That the cosmic process cannot be thought without an end in time, cannot be of endless duration, is presupposed; for if the goal lay at an infinite distance, a finite duration of the process, however long, would bring no nearer the goal, that would still remain infinitely remote.  The process would thus no longer be a means for reaching the goal, consequently it would be purposeless and aimless.  As little as it would comport with the notion of development to ascribe an infinite duration in the past to the world-process, because then every conceivable development must be already traversed, which yet is not the case, just as little can we allow to the process an endless duration for the future; both would abolish the idea of development towards a goal, and would put the world-process on a level with the pouring of water into a sieve of the daughters of Danaus.  The complete victory of the logical over the alogical must therefore coincide with the temporal end of the world-process, the last day.

Whether humanity will be capable of so high an enchancement of consciousness, or whether a higher race of animals will arise on earth, which, continuing the work of humanity, will attain the goal, or whether our earth altogether is only an abortive attempt to reach such goal, and it will only be reached, when our little planet has long been reckoned to the frozen celestial bodies, on a planet invisible to us of another fixed star under more favourable conditions, is hard to say.  Thus much is certain, wherever the process may come to an end, the goal of the process and the contending elements will always be the same in this world.  If really humanity is able and called to bring the world-process to a final issue, it will at all events have to do this at the height of its development under the most favourable circumstances of the earth’s habitableness, and therefore we do not need for this case to trouble about the scientific perspective of a future congelation and refrigeration of the earth, since then long before the occurrence of such a terrestrial refrigeration the world-process altogether would have been arrested, and the existence of this kosmos with all its world-lenses and nebulæ have been abolished.

Schopenhauer does not hesitate to declare man equal to the task, but he is only so decided because he conceives the problem in an individual sense, whereas we must apprehend it universally, when it of course requires quite other conditions, which we shall soon examine more closely.  However that be, of the world known to us we are the first-fruits of the spirit and must bravely wrestle.  If victory does not follow, it is not our fault.  If, however, we are capable of victory, and we should only miss obtaining it through indolence, we, i.e., the creative being of the world, which is one with us, would have to bear so much the longer as immanent punishment the torment of existence.  Therefore vigorously forward in the world-process as workers in the Lord’s vineyard, for it is the process alone that can bring redemption!

Here we have reached the point where the philosophy of the Unconscious gains a principle which alone can form the basis of practical philosophy.  The truth of the first stage of the illusion was despair of existence here; the truth of the second stage of the illusion was despair also of the hereafter; the truth of the third stage of the illusion was the absolute resignation of positive happiness.  All these points of view are merely negative; practical philosophy and life, however, need a positive stand-point, and this is the complete devotion of the personality to the world-process for the sake of its goal, the general world-redemption (no longer, as in the third stage of the illusion, in the hope of a positive happiness in some later phase of the process).  Otherwise expressed, the principle of practical philosophy consists in this, to make the ends of the Unconscious ends of our own Consciousness, which follows immediately from the two premises, that, in the first place, consciousness has made the goal of the world-redemption from the misery of volition its own goal; and, secondly, that it has the persuasion of the all-wisdom of the Unconscious, in consequence of which it recognizes all the means made use of by the Unconscious as the most suitable possible, even if in the special case it should be inclined to harbour doubts thereon.  Since selfishness, the original source of all evil, which theoretically, by the acknowledgment of Monism, has already been ascertained to be naught, can practically be effectively broken by nothing else than the cognition of the illusory nature of all endeavours after positive happiness, the requisite perfect devotion of the personality to the whole is at this standpoint more readily attainable than at any other….Further, since the dread of pain, the fear of the eternal prolongation of the sensually present pain, yields always a far more energetic motive for effective action than the hope of a felicity represented as future, at this standpoint instinct will be restored to its rights far more powerfully than in the third stage of the illusion by the mere suppression of egoism, and the affirmation of the will to live proclaimed provisionally alone true; for only in complete devotion to life and its pains, not in cowardly renunciation and withdrawal, is anything to be achieved for the world-process.  The reflecting reader will also, without further suggestion, understand how a practical philosophy erected on these principles should be shaped, and that such an one cannot contain the disunion, but only the full reconciliation with life.  It is now also obvious how only the unity of Optimism and Pessimism, here expounded, of which every human being carries in himself an obscure image as his norm of action, is able to give an energetic, and indeed the strongest conceivable impulse to effective action, whilst the one-sided Pessimism from nihilistic despair, the one-sided and really consistent Optimism from easy unconcern must lead to Quietism.  [For those readers who regard the standpoint of our time, which I call the third stage of the illusion, the true one, and who are not inclined to deem it possible that this too will ever be recognized in the manner indicated by me as illusion by the further historical development of the consciousness of humanity, I will only remark, that the principles here expressed (to make the ends of the Unconscious ends of consciousness, &c.) remains just as valid for them, as the observations made on occasion of the third stage of the illusion with respect to egoism (suicide, Quietism, &c.) retain their validity from the point of view here reached, since it is for both indifferent whether the final goal of the world-development be conceived positively or negatively.]

We have in conclusion still to deal with the question, in what manner the end of the world-process, the relegation of all volition to absolute non-volition, with which, as we know, all so-called existence (organization, matter, &c.), eo ipso disappears and ceases, is to be conceived.  Out knowledge is far too imperfect, our experience too brief, and the possible analogies too defective, for us to be able, even approximately, to form a picture of the end of the process; and I beg the gentle reader not to take the following for an apocalypse of the end of the world, but only for hints which are to prove that the matter is not quite so unthinkable as it might well appear to many at the first blush.  But even those whom these aphorisms on the mode of conceiving that event may far more repel than the bare enouncement of the same, I beg not to be misled as to the proved necessity of that only possible goal of the world-process by the difficulties which attend the comprehension of the “How” at a point so remote from the end.  Of course, we can only contemplate the case that mankind, and not another species of living beings unknown to us, is called to solve the problem.

The first condition of the success of the work is this, that by far the largest part of the Unconscious Spirit manifesting itself in the present world is to be found in humanity; for only when the negative part of volition in humanity outweighs the sum of all the rest of the will objectifying itself in the organic and inorganic world, only then can the human negation of will annihilate the whole actual volition of the world without residuum, and cause the whole kosmos to disappear at a stroke by withdrawal of the volition, which alone gives it existence.  (That is here the only question, not as to a mere suicide of humanity en masse, the complete inutility of which for attaining the goal of the world-process has already been proved above.)  This supposition now, that one day the major part of the actual volition or of the functioning Unconscious Spirit may be manifested in humanity, seems to possess no difficulty in principle.  On the earth we see man ever suppressing other animal and vegetable life, save those animals and plants that he employs for his own use.  Future still undreamt-of advances in chemistry and agriculture may permit the increase of the earth’s population to a very considerable degree, although it already now amounts to upwards of  I 300 millions, a relatively small part of the solid land supporting as dense a population as the means of obtaining nourishment known at our present stage of civilization allow.  Of the stars only a comparatively small part have entered upon that brief period of refrigeration which permits of the existence of organisms; but not to mention that for the raising of a luxuriant organisation quite other conditions are required than merely the right temperature (e.g., irradiation through rays of light, suitable atmospheric pressure, existence of water, right mixture of the chemical constituents of the atmosphere, &c.), of that insignificant number which at all support organisation, only a very small part again will be able to produce beings of a stage of organisation approximating to the human.  The sidereal developments are measured by such immense intervals that it is a priori extremely improbable that the existence of a highly organized species on another star should coincide with the duration of mankind on earth.—But now how much greater is the spirit that manifests itself in a cultivated man than that in an animal or a plant; how much greater than that in an unorganised complex of atoms!  One must not commit the error of estimating the strength of the active will merely by the mechanical effect, i.e., by the degree of the resistance of atomic forces overcome; this would be extremely one-sided, since the manifestation of the will in the atomic forces is only the lowest.  The will, however, has many other aims, and a contest of the most violent desires can take place without any perceptible influence on the position of the atoms.  Therefore the hypothesis seems to me to be by no means far-fetched, that one day in a remote future humanity may combine in itself such a quantity of spirit and will, that the spirit and will active in the rest of the world is considerably outweighed by the former.

The second condition of the possibility of victory is, that the consciousness of mankind be penetrated by the folly of volition and the misery of all existence; that it have conceived so deep a yearning for the peace and the painlessness of non-being, and all the motives hitherto making for volition and existence have been so far seen through in their vanity and nothingness that that yearning after the annihilation of volition and existence attains resistless authority as a practical motive.  According to the last chapter, this condition is one whose fulfilment in the hoary age of humanity we may expect with the greatest probability, when the theoretical cognition of the misery of existence is truthfully comprehended, and this cognition gradually more and more overcomes the opposing instinctive emotional judgment, and even becomes a practically efficient feeling, which, as a union of present pain, memory of former pain and fore-feeling of care and fear—becomes a collective feeling in every individual, embracing the whole life of the individual, and through sympathy the whole world, which at last attains unlimited sway.  Doubt as to the general motive power of such an idea at first certainly arising and communicated in more or less abstract form, would not be authorised, for it is the invariably observed course of historically regulative ideas which have arisen in the brain of an individual, that although they can only be communicated in abstract form, they penetrate in course of time into the heart of the masses, and at last arouse their will to a passionateness not seldom bordering on fanaticism.  But if ever an idea was born as feeling, it is the pessimistic sympathy with oneself and everything living and the longing after the peace of non-existence; and if ever an idea was called to fulfil its historical mission without turbulence and passion, silently but steadily and persistently in the interior of the soul, it is this.  Since experientially the individual negation of the will at variance with the ends of the Unconscious furnished in such numerous cases a sufficient motive for overcoming the instinctive will to live in quietistic ascetic self-immolation (certainly without any metaphysical result), it is not obvious why at the end of the world-process the universal negation of will fulfilling the purpose of the Unconscious should not likewise be able to afford a sufficient motive for overcoming the instinctive will to live, especially as everything hard is the more easily executed the greater the co-operation.  It should further be noted that humanity has still a life of many generations in which to gradually subdue and deaden, by habit and hereditary influence, the passions opposing the pessimistic feeling and the longing after peace, and to strengthen the pessimistic disposition by hereditary transmission.  Even now we may remark that the natural force of passion and its demoniac power has to yield no inconsiderable domain to the leveling and enfeebling influences of modern life, and this enfeebling process will attain results the more considerable the more law and morals restrict personal caprice, and the more rationally life is managed according to the pattern of trivial worldly prudence from childhood upwards.  It is one of the signs of humanity’s growing old that not a growth, but a diminution of the energy of feeling and of passion opposes the growth of intellectual clearness; that thus the influence of conscious intellect in the provinces of feeling and willing, undeniably present at every stage, is for a twofold reason, constantly on the increase, until in old age it becomes decidedly dominant.  From this point of view, too, the possibility therefore appears anything but remote that the pessimistic consciousness will one day become the dominant motive of voluntary choice.—We may modify this second condition in such a way that not all humanity, but only a part thereof, need be penetrated by this consciousness, provided that the spirit that is manifested in it be the larger half of the active spirit of the universe.

The third condition is a sufficient communication between the peoples of the earth to allow of a simultaneous common resolve.  On this point, whose fulfilment only depends on the perfection and more dexterous application of technical discoveries, imagination has free scope.

If we assume these conditions as given, there is a possibility that the majority of the spirit active in the world may form the resolve to give up willing.

There now arises the further question whether, in the nature of the will, its functional activity and the mode of its determination by motives, the possibility is at all given of attaining a universal negation of the will, supposing the preponderating part of the actual world-will to be contained in that mass of conscious mind which resolves a tempo to will no more, no matter whether this supposition be fulfilled within humanity or another species, or only under quite other conditions of existence of a future phase of development of the kosmos?  We have to go back for the decision of this last question to our knowledge of the nature of volition and the laws of motivation following therefrom, it being always assumed that these must remain identical in every possible form of objectification of the will.

It admits of no doubt that a special volition in man, a desire, affection, or passion, may, in certain circumstances, be neutralized by the influence of conscious reason in the special case.  If, e.g., I aim at honour by a deed or a work, and my reason tells me that those whose recognition I covet are fools and blockheads, this insight, if it is sufficiently convincing and potent, is able to allay my ambition, at least in this case.  But now all psychologists are agreed that such a suppression is not to be conceived by direct influence of the reason on the desire to be suppressed, but only indirectly by the motivation or excitement of an opposite desire, which now on its part comes into collision with the first, the result of which is that they neutralise one another.  Only in this manner is the suppression of the positive world-will to be conceived that Schopenhauer calls the will to live.  Conscious cognition cannot directly diminish or suppress the will, but it can only excite an opposite, therefore negative will, which diminishes the intensity of the positive will.  Quite inadmissible accordingly is Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the quietive of the will consisting in an altogether different mode of knowledge, before which the motives are to be inefficient, and which shall be the only possible case of an incursion of the transcendent freedom of the will into the world of phenomena.  Such incomprehensible, utterly unjustified miracles are with our view superfluous.  How beautifully, on the contrary, Schelling says, “Even God cannot otherwise conquer the will than through itself.”

If in the struggle of the special desires often two desires effect no reciprocal suppression in spite of the struggle, this happens either because they are only partially opposed, but partially pursue different side-ends, therefore their paths form only an angle, as it were; or it happens because the one desire is indeed in fact continually annihilated, but just as continually is instinctively born anew from the persistent ground of the Unconscious, so that there arises the appearance of its not being altered at all.  In the opposition of the affirmation and negation of will the contrast is so mathematically strict that the former case certainly cannot occur, and for an immediate resurgence of the world-will after its total annihilation there is at any rate entirely wanting the analogy with the single desire, because in the latter the background of the actual world-will, in the former, however, nothing actually any longer remains.  (For the rest, the possibility of a resurgence will receive notice in the following chapter.)  As long, then, as the opposition of the will motived by consciousness has not yet attained the strength of the world-will to be suppressed, so long will the continually annihilated part continually reassert itself, supported on the remaining part, which also further secures the positive direction of the will; but as soon as the former has attained the same strength as the latter, there is no obvious reason why both should not completely paralyse one another and reduce to zero, i.e., be destroyed without residuum.  A negative excess is therefore inconceivable, because the zero-point is the goal of the negative will which it will not transgress.

The motivation or excitement of the negative will by conscious knowledge is, according to the analogy of the excitement of a special negative desire through rational insight, not merely conceivable, but demanded; for here in the universal, just as in the individual, the ground on which reason sets in motion the conscious will of opposition is no other than an endæmonological one—regard to the attainment of the happiest possible state, beyond which goal the positive unconscious will in its blindness darts to its misery.  This endeavour after the greatest possible state of satisfaction, which the blind will only seeks from want of understanding in a perverse direction, thus belongs actually quite universally to the nature of the will itself, and wherever in the kosmos so high a consciousness may arise that it perceives the absurdity of the way to the goal, there necessarily a conscious volition is motived by this knowledge, which seeks to attain the greatest possible state of satisfaction by the opposite path, namely, by way of negation of the will.

The result of the last three chapters is, then, as follows.  Volition has by its nature an excess of pain for its consequence.  Volition, which posits the “That” of the world, thus condemns the world, no matter how it may be constituted, to torment.  To obtain redemption from this unblessedness of volition, which the all-wisdom or the logical element of the unconscious Idea cannot directly effect, because it is itself in bondage to the Will, the logical in the Unconscious procures the emancipation of the Idea through consciousness in that it thus dissipates the will in individuation, so that its separate tendencies turn against one another.  The logical principle guides the world-process most wisely to the goal of the greatest possible evolution of consciousness, which being attained, consciousness suffices to hurl back the total actual volition into nothingness, by which the process and the world ceases, and ceases indeed without any residuum whatever whereby the process might be continued.  The logical element therefore ensures that the world is a best possible world, such a one, namely, as attains redemption, not one whose torment is perpetuated endlessly.

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from An Account of the Hara-Kiri


Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron of Redesdale, was the second secretary to the British Legation in Japan when he published Tales of Old Japan (1871), a collection of stories, fairy tales, accounts of superstitions, sermons, and other short pieces based on traditional Japanese culture. He had learned Japanese, and in his writings he drew from materials describing virtually all the classes in Japanese culture—except, as he acknowledged, the Emperor and his court. Mitford saw his work as an effort to depict the social and cultural life of the traditional feudal system just as it was passing away, “like a dissolving view,” during the latter years of the 19th century.

In 1868, Mitford was sent to witness an occasion of seppuku as the representative of the British Legation, one of seven foreign witnesses who were the first outsiders to witness such an execution. In his now-classic account of hara-kiri, or “cutting the belly” (q.v., under Daidoji Yuzan), Mitford describes the ceremony, which had been ordered by the Mikado himself. The self-execution was performed at night in a temple near Kobe; the condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, a samurai officer who had given the order to fire on foreigners in the Kobe settlement.

Mitford’s direct observations are followed by an account translated from a rare Japanese manuscript that contrasts traditional and then-contemporary practices of ritual suicide. This is followed by accounts of several variants of seppuku in different capital-punishment contexts. Between its origins in the late 12th century and the 19th-century practice Mitford was describing, seppuku had evolved from being a demonstration of the extreme courage of the true samurai into a highly elaborate ceremony in which every detail was rigorously stipulated by custom and tradition. Of particular interest in Mitford’s account is his reference to the debates in the Japanese Parliament in 1869 over a proposal to abolish seppuku—a proposal that was roundly rejected. During World War II, seppuku would be performed by countless numbers of Japanese officers in the South Pacific, and immediately after Japan’s surrender to the Allies, some patriots committed seppuku on the grounds of the Imperial Palace as a way of apologizing to the Emperor for losing the war. The ritual self-disembowelment of the well-known writer and Nobel Prize nominee Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), intended as protest and admonition against the modernization of Japan, also followed these ceremonial patterns.

A. B. Mitford, “An Account of the Hara-Kiri,” in Tales of Old Japan. London: Macmillan and Co., 1883, pp. 355-363. Available online from Project Gutenberg Release # 13015.


As a corollary to the above elaborate statement of the ceremonies proper to be observed at the hara-kiri, I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent officially to witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburô, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hiogo in the month of February 1868,—an attack to which I have alluded in the preamble to the story of the Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto. Up to that time no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveller’s fable.

The ceremony, which was ordered by the Mikado himself, took place at 10.30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hiogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all.

We were conducted to the temple by officers of the Princes of Satsuma and Choshiu. Although the ceremony was to be [pg 282] conducted in the most private manner, the casual remarks which we overheard in the streets, and a crowd lining the principal entrance to the temple, showed that it was a matter of no little interest to the public. The courtyard of the temple presented a most picturesque sight; it was crowded with soldiers standing about in knots round large fires, which threw a dim flickering light over the heavy eaves and quaint gable-ends of the sacred buildings. We were shown into an inner room, where we were to wait until the preparation for the ceremony was completed: in the next room to us were the high Japanese officers. After a long interval, which seemed doubly long from the silence which prevailed, Itô Shunské, the provisional Governor of Hiogo, came and took down our names, and informed us that seven kenshi, sheriffs or witnesses, would attend on the part of the Japanese. He and another officer represented the Mikado; two captains of Satsuma’s infantry, and two of Choshiu’s, with a representative of the Prince of Bizen, the clan of the condemned man, completed the number, which was probably arranged in order to tally with that of the foreigners. Itô Shunské further inquired whether we wished to put any questions to the prisoner. We replied in the negative.

A further delay then ensued, after which we were invited to follow the Japanese witnesses into the hondo or main hall of the temple, where the ceremony was to be performed. It was an imposing scene. A large hall with a high roof supported by dark pillars of wood. From the ceiling hung a profusion of those huge gilt lamps and ornaments peculiar to Buddhist temples. In front of the high altar, where the floor, covered with beautiful white mats, is raised some three or four inches from the ground, was laid a rug of scarlet felt. Tall candles placed at regular intervals gave out a dim mysterious light, just sufficient to let all the proceedings be seen. The seven Japanese took their places on the left of the raised floor, the seven foreigners on the right. No other person was present.

After an interval of a few minutes of anxious suspense, Taki Zenzaburô, a stalwart man, thirty-two years of age, with a noble air, walked into the hall attired in his dress of ceremony, with the peculiar hempen-cloth wings which are worn on great occasions. He was accompanied by a kaishaku and three officers, who wore the jimbaori or war surcoat with gold-tissue facings. The word kaishaku, it should be observed, is one to which our word executioner is no equivalent term. The office is that of a gentleman: in many cases it is performed by a kinsman or friend of the condemned, and the relation between them is rather that of principal and second than that of victim and executioner. In this instance the kaishaku was a pupil of Taki Zenzaburô, and was selected by the friends of the latter from among their own number for his skill in swordsmanship.

With the kaishaku on his left hand, Taki Zenzaburô advanced slowly towards the Japanese witnesses, and the two bowed before [pg 283] them, then drawing near to the foreigners they saluted us in the same way, perhaps even with more deference: in each case the salutation was ceremoniously returned. Slowly, and with great dignity, the condemned man mounted on to the raised floor, prostrated himself before the high altar twice, and seated himself on the felt carpet with his back to the high altar, the kaishaku crouching on his left-hand side. One of the three attendant officers then came forward, bearing a stand of the kind used in temples for offerings, on which, wrapped in paper, lay the wakizashi, the short sword or dirk of the Japanese, nine inches and a half in length, with a point and an edge as sharp as a razor’s. This he handed, prostrating himself, to the condemned man, who received it reverently, raising it to his head with both hands, and placed it in front of himself.

After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburô, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:—

“I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kôbé, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act.”

Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.

A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.

The kaishaku made a low bow, wiped his sword with a piece of paper which he had ready for the purpose, and retired from [pg 284] the raised floor; and the stained dirk was solemnly borne away, a bloody proof of the execution.

The two representatives of the Mikado then left their places, and, crossing over to where the foreign witnesses sat, called us to witness that the sentence of death upon Taki Zenzaburô had been faithfully carried out. The ceremony being at an end, we left the temple.

The ceremony, to which the place and the hour gave an additional solemnity, was characterized throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank; and it is important to note this fact, because it carries with it the conviction that the dead man was indeed the officer who had committed the crime, and no substitute. While profoundly impressed by the terrible scene it was impossible at the same time not to be filled with admiration of the firm and manly bearing of the sufferer, and of the nerve with which the kaishaku performed his last duty to his master. Nothing could more strongly show the force of education. The Samurai, or gentleman of the military class, from his earliest years learns to look upon the hara-kiri as a ceremony in which some day he may be called upon to play a part as principal or second. In old-fashioned families, which hold to the traditions of ancient chivalry, the child is instructed in the rite and familiarized with the idea as an honourable expiation of crime or blotting out of disgrace. If the hour comes, he is prepared for it, and gravely faces an ordeal which early training has robbed of half its horrors. In what other country in the world does a man learn that the last tribute of affection which he may have to pay to his best friend may be to act as his executioner?

Since I wrote the above, we have heard that, before his entry into the fatal hall, Taki Zenzaburô called round him all those of his own clan who were present, many of whom had carried out his order to fire, and, addressing them in a short speech, acknowledged the heinousness of his crime and the justice of his sentence, and warned them solemnly to avoid any repetition of attacks upon foreigners. They were also addressed by the officers of the Mikado, who urged them to bear no ill-will against us on account of the fate of their fellow-clansman. They declared that they entertained no such feeling.

The opinion has been expressed that it would have been politic for the foreign representatives at the last moment to have interceded for the life of Taki Zenzaburô. The question is believed to have been debated among the representatives themselves. My own belief is that mercy, although it might have produced the desired effect among the more civilized clans, would have been mistaken for weakness and fear by those wilder people who have not yet a personal knowledge of foreigners. The offence—an attack upon the flags and subjects of all the Treaty Powers, which lack of skill, not of will, alone prevented from ending in a [pg 285] universal massacre—was the gravest that has been committed upon foreigners since their residence in Japan. Death was undoubtedly deserved, and the form chosen was in Japanese eyes merciful and yet judicial. The crime might have involved a war and cost hundreds of lives; it was wiped out by one death. I believe that, in the interest of Japan as well as in our own, the course pursued was wise, and it was very satisfactory to me to find that one of the ablest Japanese ministers, with whom I had a discussion upon the subject, was quite of my opinion.

The ceremonies observed at the hara-kiri appear to vary slightly in detail in different parts of Japan; but the following memorandum upon the subject of the rite, as it used to be practised at Yedo during the rule of the Tycoon, clearly establishes its judicial character. I translated it from a paper drawn up for me by a Japanese who was able to speak of what he had seen himself. Three different ceremonies are described:—

1st. Ceremonies observed at the “hara-kiri” of a Hatamoto (petty noble of the Tycoon’s court) in prison.—This is conducted with great secrecy. Six mats are spread in a large courtyard of the prison; an ometsuké (officer whose duties appear to consist in the surveillance of other officers), assisted by two other ometsukés of the second and third class, acts as kenshi (sheriff or witness), and sits in front of the mats. The condemned man, attired in his dress of ceremony, and wearing his wings of hempen cloth, sits in the centre of the mats. At each of the four corners of the mats sits a prison official. Two officers of the Governor of the city act as kaishaku (executioners or seconds), and take their place, one on the right hand and the other on the left hand of the condemned. The kaishaku on the left side, announcing his name and surname, says, bowing, “I have the honour to act as kaishaku to you; have you any last wishes to confide to me?” The condemned man thanks him and accepts the offer or not, as the case may be. He then bows to the sheriff, and a wooden dirk nine and a half inches long is placed before him at a distance of three feet, wrapped in paper, and lying on a stand such as is used for offerings in temples. As he reaches forward to take the wooden sword, and stretches out his neck, the kaifihaku on his left-hand side draws his sword and strikes off his head. The kaishaku on the right-hand side takes up the head and shows it to the sheriff. The body is given to the relations of the deceased for burial. His property is confiscated.

2nd. The ceremonies observed at the “hara-kiri” of a Daimio’s retainer.—When the retainer of a Daimio is condemned to perform the hara-kiri, four mats are placed in the yard of the yashiki or palace. The condemned man, dressed in his robes of ceremony and wearing his wings of hempen cloth, sits in the centre. An officer acts as chief witness, with a second witness under him. Two officers, who act as kaishaku, are on the right and left of the condemned man; four officers are placed at the corners of the mats. The kaishaku, as in the former case, offers to execute [pg 286] the last wishes of the condemned. A dirk nine and a half inches long is placed before him on a stand. In this case the dirk is a real dirk, which the man takes and stabs himself with on the left side, below the navel, drawing it across to the right side. At this moment, when he leans forward in pain, the kaishaku on the left-hand side cuts off the head. The kaishaku on the right-hand side takes up the head, and shows it to the sheriff. The body is given to the relations for burial. In most cases the property of the deceased is confiscated.

3rd. Self-immolation of a Daimio on account of disgrace.—When a Daimio had been guilty of treason or offended against the Tycoon, inasmuch as the family was disgraced, and an apology could neither be offered nor accepted, the offending Daimio was condemned to hara-kiri. Calling his councillors around him, he confided to them his last will and testament for transmission to the Tycoon. Then, clothing himself in his court dress, he disembowelled himself, and cut his own throat. His councillors then reported the matter to the Government, and a coroner was sent to investigate it. To him the retainers handed the last will and testament of their lord, and be took it to the Gorôjiu (first council), who transmitted it to the Tycoon. If the offence was heinous, such as would involve the ruin of the whole family, by the clemency of the Tycoon, half the property might be confiscated, and half returned to the heir; if the offence was trivial, the property was inherited intact by the heir, and the family did not suffer.

In all cases where the criminal disembowels himself of his own accord without condemnation and without investigation, inasmuch as he is no longer able to defend himself, the offence is considered as non-proven, and the property is not confiscated. In the year 1869 a motion was brought forward in the Japanese parliament by one Ono Seigorô, clerk of the house, advocating the abolition of the practice of hara-kiri. Two hundred members out of a house of 209 voted against the motion, which was supported by only three speakers, six members not voting on either side. In this debate the seppuku, or hara-kiri, was called “the very shrine of the Japanese national spirit, and the embodiment in practice of devotion to principle,” “a great ornament to the empire,” “a pillar of the constitution,” “a valuable institution, tending to the honour of the nobles, and based on a compassionate feeling towards the official caste,” “a pillar of religion and a spur to virtue.” The whole debate (which is well worth reading, and an able translation of which by Mr. Aston has appeared in a recent Blue Book) shows the affection with which the Japanese cling to the traditions of a chivalrous past. It is worthy of notice that the proposer, Ono Seigorô, who on more than one occasion rendered himself conspicuous by introducing motions based upon an admiration of our Western civilization, was murdered not long after this debate took place.

There are many stories on record of extraordinary heroism being [pg 287] displayed in the hara-kiri. The case of a young fellow, only twenty years old, of the Choshiu clan, which was told me the other day by an eye-witness, deserves mention as a marvellous instance of determination. Not content with giving himself the one necessary cut, he slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side, with its sharp edge to the front; setting his teeth in one supreme effort, he drove the knife forward with both hands through his throat, and fell dead.

One more story and I have done. During the revolution, when the Tycoon, beaten on every side, fled ignominiously to Yedo, he is said to have determined to fight no more, but to yield everything. A member of his second council went to him and said, “Sir, the only way for you now to retrieve the honour of the family of Tokugawa is to disembowel yourself; and to prove to you that I am sincere and disinterested in what I say, I am here ready to disembowel myself with you.” The Tycoon flew into a great rage, saying that he would listen to no such nonsense, and left the room. His faithful retainer, to prove his honesty, retired to another part of the castle, and solemnly performed the hara-kiri.


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from The Diary of a Writer
  • In Lieu of a Preface on the Great and Little Bear, on the Prayer of the Great Goethe, And, Generally, on Bad Habits
  • Two Suicides
  • The Verdict
  • Arbitrary Assertions
  • A Few Words About Youth
  • On Suicides and Haughtiness
  • The Boy Celebrating His Saint’s Day
  • The Dream of a Strange Man: A Fantastic Story


Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, the second child of a civil servant, a surgeon in a hospital for the poor. Despite their love of literature, Dostoevsky’s father compelled his sons to attend the St. Petersburg Academy of Engineers to prepare for stable careers. In 1839, the father—a strict, irritable, and cruel personality—died. Although historians now argue that the cause of death was probably stroke, Dostoevsky believed throughout his life that his father had been murdered by his serfs, angered at his ill treatment of them. For the rest of his life, Dostoevsky would suffer guilt over his father’s death, the product of his own ambivalent feelings.

Having published his first novel Poor Folk (1846), which was praised by an influential critic as Russia’s first significant social novel, and in the same year, a second but less well-received novel The Double, in 1847, Dostoevsky began to form a connection with the “Petrashevsky Circle,” a moderately revolutionary group. The members of the group, including Dostoevsky, were arrested and convicted of conspiracy and subversion. The tsar, in order to emphasize his benevolence, staged a false execution before a firing squad, which was called off seconds before Dostoevsky believed his life would end. His time was then spent working off an eight-year sentence to hard labor and military service in Siberia. These experiences revived Dostoevsky’s philosophy with spiritual revelations based on Christian love, redemption, and absolution.

In 1864, Dostoevsky published Notes from the Underground, in which he demonstrates that freedom is an essential attribute of man, yet argues against the notion that man (and the society organized around him) is rational. Man desires freedom, but unchecked freedom may lead to destruction. Dostoevsky subsequently published a number of major novels: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1867–69), The Possessed (1871–72). The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80) is particularly noted for its section entitled “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in which the figure of Christ conceives of man as capable of handling true freedom, while the Grand Inquisitor, the Devil, argues that man is cowardly, menial, and unable to endure freedom. Much of Dostoevsky’s writing challenges rational, scientific humanitarianism and insists on the need for faith in God to achieve real freedom. Soon after completing this last work and already planning a sequel to it, Dostoevsky died of a pulmonary hemorrhage.

As Gene Fitzgerald describes The Diary of a Writer (1873–81), from which these selections are taken, Dostoevsky works out a rather developed scheme concerning the human being and “rectilinearity” (прямолинейность). In doing so, he establishes a basic requirement for his notion of what it is to be human. He divides people into two cateogories—those who are “reflective thinkers” and those who are “enthusiasts.” The reflective thinkers continue to think and question their own conclusions and, while they sincerely believe in their ideas for a time, because they never stop thinking, they ultimately contradict, qualify, or negate them and can even “laugh at them” as somewhat ridiculous if warranted. Enthusiasts, on the other hand, are rectilinear thinkers, believing in and accepting their mental constructs as absolutes. Once they have constructed a belief system, they can “put their mind to rest” and, secure in their beliefs, they no longer need to question them. Thus, enthusiasts stop thinking; for this, Dostoevsky castigates them as “cast iron people” with “cast iron beliefs” who have become inert and have willingly given up the freedom of their consciousness. Such people, he asserts, have become spiritually dead. Clearly, for Dostoevsky, constant thought is a basic requirement for earning the right to be called a human being. 

In the Diary, Dostoevsky examines various cases of suicide, comparing and examining their differing motivations against the background of Russian society. In the view of Kenneth Lantz, Dostoevsky selects suicides that reveal fundamental spiritual crises in Russian life. “We have many inappropriate ideas,” Dostoevsky wrote, “. . . In Russia an idea crashes upon a man as an enormous stone and half crushes him. And so he shrivels under it, knowing not how to extricate himself. One fellow is willing to live, though in a half-crushed state; but another one is unwilling and kills himself.” It is the seeming unexplainedness of these differences that Dostoevsky explores.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer, tr. Boris Brasol. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949, pp. 157-158, 335-338, 468-473, 538-547, 590-592, 676-678. Material in introduction from Gene Fitzgerald.



In Lieu of a Preface on the Great and Little Bears, on the Prayer of the Great Goethe and, Generally, on Bad Habits

Nowadays all people have perfect peace of mind: they are calm and, perhaps, even happy. It is doubtful if anyone renders an account to oneself; everybody is acting “simply,” and this already is complete happiness. Nowadays, much as heretofore, everybody is corroded with egoism, but heretofore egoism used to enter timidly, feverishly looking around, staring at faces. “Did I enter as I should have? Did I speak as I should have?”But nowadays everyone, entering anywhere, is convinced from the start that everything belongs to him alone. And, if not to him, he does not even grow angry, but instantly settles the problem. Haven’t you heard about little epistles such as:

“Dear papa, I am twenty-three, and as yet I have accomplished nothing; being convinced that nothing will come of me, I have decided to commit suicide. . .”

And he shoots himself. Still, here at least something may be comprehended: “What, if not pride, is the point of living?” But another fellow will look around, will roam awhile and will silently shoot himself, solely because he has no money to hire a mistress. This is already utter swinishness.

It is being maintained in the press that theirs is a case of too much thinking: “He thinks and thinks and then he emerges exactly at the contemplated spot.” On the contrary, I am convinced that he does not think at all; that he is wholly incapable of forming a judgment; that he is savagely undeveloped, and if he should long for anything, he could be longing not consciously but in an animal-like fashion-simply perfect swinishness-and there is nothing liberal about it.

And in this connection-not a single Hamletian question:

            But that the dread of something after death…

And in this there is much that is strange. Is it possible that it is thoughtlessness in Russian nature?I say: thoughtlessness, and not absurdity. All right: do not believe, but at least give thought. In our felo-de-se there is even no shadow of doubt, no shadow of suspicion that he is called “I” and that he is an immortal creature. It seems as if he had even never heard anything about this. And yet neither is he an atheist. Do recall former atheists: having lost faith in one thing they would promptly start passionately believing something else. Do recall the fervent faith of Diderot, Voltaire. . . . In our case-a perfect tabularasa, and where does Voltaire come in here?Simply, there’s no money to hire a mistress; nothing more.

The self-destroyer Werther, when committing suicide, in the last lines left by him, expresses regret that he would nevermore behold “the beautiful constellation of the Great Bear” and he bids it farewell. Oh, how was the then still youthful Goethe revealed in this little trait I Why were these constellations so dear to young Werther?—Because, whenever contemplating them, he realized that he was by no means an atom and a nonentity compared with them; that all these numberless mysterious, divine miracles were in no sense higher than his thought and consciousness; not higher than the ideal of beauty confined in his soul, and, therefore, they were equal to him and made him akin to the infinity of being. . . . And for the happiness to perceive this great thought which reveals to him who he is, he is indebted exclusively to his human image.

“Great Spirit, I thank Thee for the human image bestowed on me by Thee.”

Such must have been the lifelong prayer of the great Goethe. In our midst this image bestowed upon man is being smashed quite simply and with no German tricks, while no one would think of bidding farewell not only to the Great, but even to the Little, Bear, and even if one should think of it he would not do it: he would feel too much ashamed.

However, just now I mentioned the word “independence.” But do we love independence?That’s the question. And what is our independence? Are there any two persons who would understand it in one and the same sense? Nor do I know if there is among us even a single idea which would be seriously believed. Our rank and filewhether rich or poorlove to think about nothing and, without giving much thought, simply to indulge in debauch as long as strength permits and one does not become bored with it. Men standing away from the routine “segregate” themselves into groups and pretend that they believe something; but it would seem that they are straining themselves, merely as a matter of diversion. There is also a special kind of people who have adopted, and are exploring, the formula “the worsethe better.” Finally, there are paradoxicalistssometimes even very honest, but usually rather inept; among these, especially the honest ones, countless suicides are being committed. And in truth of late, suicides in Russia have become so frequent that nobody even speaks of them. The Russian soil seems to have lost the strength to hold people on it. And how many unquestionably honest men, particularly, honest women!

We have many inappropriate ideas, and that is what oppresses one. In Russia an idea crashes upon a man as an enormous stone and half crushes him. And so he shrivels under it, knowing not how to extricate himself. One fellow is willing to live, though in a half-crushed state; but another one is unwilling and kills himself . . . .Very typical is a letter of a girl who took her life into her own hands; it has appeared in The New Times; it is a long letter. She was twenty-five years old. Her name was Pisareva; she was the daughter of formerly well-to-do landowners. But she came to Petersburg and paid her tribute to progress by becoming a midwife. She succeeded in passing the examinations and found a position as a zemstvo midwife. She herself admitted that she was not in need, and was able to earn a decent living; but she grew tired, very tiredso tired that she decided to take a rest. “And where can one rest better than in a grave?” As a matter of fact, she did become exceedingly tired. Even the letter of this unfortunate girl is permeated with fatigue. This is a snarling, impatient letter: “Do but leave me alone! I am tired, tired! … Don’t forget to pull off me the new shirt and stockings: on my night table you will find an old shirt and a pair of old stockings. These should be put on me.” She did not use the words “take off,” but wrote”pull off”; and so it is in everything: terrible impatience. All these harsh words are caused by impatience, and impatienceby fatigue. She even uses abusive language: “Did you really believe that I was going home? What the devil would I go there for?” Or: “Now, Lipareva, forgive me, and let Petrova forgive me [it was in the latter’s apartment that Pisareva took poison]particularly Petrova. I am committing a swinish act, a filthy thing . . . . “Apparently she was fond of her relatives, but she wrote: “Don’t let Lizanka know, because she will inform sister, and she will come here and will start howling. I don’t wish that people should be howling over me, but all relatives without exception howl over their relations.”Howl” and not “weepall this is, apparently, the result of grumbling, impatient fatigue: “Let’s hurry, lets get it over as quickly as possibleand let me rest” Of grumbling and cynical incredulity there was much, painfully much, in her; she did not believe even in Lipareva and Petrova, for whom she had so much affection. Here are the opening words of the letter: “Don’t lose your head! Don’t start crying ‘ah!’ and ‘oh!.’ Make an effort and read to the end, and then decide what’s the best course. Don’t frighten Petrova. Maybe nothing will come of it, anyway, except laughter. My passport is in the cover of the trunk.”

“Except laughter!” This thought that she, her wretched body, will be laughed at and who would be the ones to laugh?Lipareva and Petrova? This thought flashed through her mind in a moment such as this! That’s awful!

The financial instructions concerning the paltry sum which she had left preoccupied her to the point of queerness: “Such and such monies should not be taken by the relatives; this sum should be given to Petrova; twenty-five rubles which the Chechotkins loaned me for the journey should be returned to them.” The importance attributed to money was, perhaps, the last echo of the main prejudice of her whole life—”that these stones be made bread.” In a word, there may be discerned the guiding conviction of her whole life, i.e., “if everyone were provided for, everybody would be happy; there would be no poor and no crimes. There are no crimes at all. Crime is a pathological condition resulting from poverty and unhappy environment,” etc., etc. It is precisely of this that consists that petty, conventional and most typical finite catechism of convictions to which they dedicate themselves during their lives with such ardent faith (despite the fact that very soon they grow tired of both their convictions and of life), and for which they substitute everything: the élan of life, the ties with the soil, faith in truth—everything, everything. Obviously, she had grown tired because of the tedium of life, having lost all faith in truth, all faith in any kind of duty. In a word—a total loss of the sublime of existence.

And thus, a good girl has died. I am not howling over you, poor girl, but at least let me pity you; do permit me this. Let me hope for your soul a resurrection to a life in which you would no longer grow weary. You, nice, good, honest girls—(all these qualities you possess!)—whither do you depart? Why is that dark, dull grave so dear to you? Look: a bright spring sun shines in the sky; trees are budding but you feel tired even without having lived! How, then, can your mothers help but howl over you—those mothers who have brought you up and who have so admired you when you were still infants! Here, I look at all these “outcasts”: how they long to live, how boldly they declare their right to exist! You, too, were an infant and you also desired to live; and your mother remembers this; and she compares your dead face with that laughter. With that joy which she beheld and which she remembers in your pretty little baby face-how can she refrain from “howling” how can she be reproached for doing so? Just now they showed me a little girl, Dunia; she was born with a crooked leg, that is, altogether without a leg; instead of it, there hung something resembling a string. She is only eighteen months old; she is healthy and remarkably good-looking. Everybody babies her; she nods her little head to everyone, she smiles at everyone, and she greets everybody with a smack of her lips. As yet, she knows nothing about her leg; she does not know that she is a deformed being and a cripple. But is this one, too, designed to contract hatred toward life? “We will make her an artificial leg; we will give her crutches; we will teach her to walk, and she even will not notice it,” said the doctor fondling her. And let’s pray God that she shouldn’t notice it. Nay, to grow tired, to contract hatred toward life, which means hate for everybody…. Nay, this pitiful, ugly, abortive generation of human beings, shriveling under stones that have fallen upon them, will pass out of existence; a new great idea will begin to shine like that bright sun and will strengthen the vacillating mind, and all people will say: “Life is good, but we have been bad.”

Two Suicides

Recently I happened to discuss with one of our writers (a great artist) the comicalness in life and the difficulty of defining a phenomenon by its proper word. Before that I had made the remark that I, who have known Woe from Wit for almost forty years, only this year have properly understood one of the most vivid characters in the comedy, namely, Molchalin—after this same writer with whom I conversed had explained to me Molchalin when, unexpectedly, he portrayed this character in one of his satirical sketches. (Some day I am going to dwell on Molchalin. It is a great theme.)

“Do you know”—suddenly said my interlocutor, who apparently had long ago been impressed with his idea—“do you know that no matter what you might write or depict, no matter what you might record in a belletristic work, you would never be equal to reality? No matter what you might delineate, it would always be weaker than actual life. You might think that in some work you have reached the maximum of comicalness in this or that phenomenon of life, that you have caught its most ugly aspect—not at all! Reality forthwith will reveal to you such a phase along similar lines that you have never suspected, and one that exceeds everything your own observation and imagination was able to create!. . .”

This I had known ever since 1846, when I started writing—perhaps even before that. Time and again I used to be impressed with this fact, and the apparent impotence of art made me wonder about its usefulness. Indeed, trace a certain fact in actual life—one which at first glance is even not very vivid—and if only you are able and are endowed with vision, you will perceive in it a depth such as you will not find in Shakespeare. But the whole question is: compared with whose vision, and who is able? Indeed, not only to create and write artistic works, but also to discern a fact, something of an artist is required. To some observers all phenomena of life develop with a most touching simplicity and are so intelligible that they are not worth thinking about or being looked at. However, these same phenomena might embarrass another observer to such an extent (this happens quite often) that, in the long run, he feels unable to synthesize and simplify them, to draw them out into a straight line and thus to appease his mind. He then resorts to a different kind of simplification and very simply plants a bullet in his brain so as to extinguish at once his jaded mind, together with all its queries. Such are the two extremes between which the sum total of human intelligence is enclosed. But it stands to reason that never can we exhaust a phenomenon, never can we trace its end or its beginning. We are familiar merely with the everyday, apparent and current, and this only insofar as it appears to us, whereas the ends and the beginnings still constitute to man a realm of the fantastic.

By the way, last summer one of my esteemed correspondents wrote me about a strange and unsolved suicide, and all the time I have been meaning to speak about it. In that suicide everything is a riddle—both from the outside and from within. Of course, conforming to human nature, I sought somehow to unravel the enigma so as to stop at something and “to appease myself.” The suicide was a young girl of twenty-three or twenty-four, the daughter of a well-known Russian emigrant; she was born abroad, of Russian parents, but almost not a Russian at all by upbringing. I believe there was a vague mention of her in the newspapers at the time, but the details are most curious: “She soaked a piece of cotton in chloroform, tied it around her face and lay down on the bed. …And thus she died. Before she died, she wrote the following note:

“‘Je m’en vais entreprendre un long voyage. Si cela ne réussit pas qu’on se rassemble pour fêter ma résurrection avec du Cliquot. Si cela réussit, je prie qu’on ne me laisse enterrer que tout à fait morte, puisqu’il est très desagréable de se réveiller dans un cercueil sous terre. Ce n’est pas chic!’ 

Which means:

“I am undertaking a long journey. If I should not succeed, let people gather to celebrate my resurrection with a bottle of Cliquot. If I should succeed, I ask that I be interred only after I am altogether dead, since it is very disagreeable to awake in a coffin in the earth. It is not chic!”

In this nasty, vulgar “chic,” to my way of thinking, there sounds a protest, perhaps indignation, anger—but against what? Simply vulgar persons destroy themselves by suicide only owing to a material, visible, external cause, whereas by the tone of the note one may judge that no such cause could have existed in her case. Against what, then, could the indignation be?—Against the simplicity of the visible, against the meaninglessness of life? Was she one of those well-known judges and deniers of life who are indignant against the “absurdity” of man’s appearance on earth, the nonsensical casualness of this appearance, the tyranny of the inert cause with which one cannot reconcile himself? Here we seem to be dealing with a soul which revolted against the “rectilinearness” of the phenomena, which could not stand this rectilinearness conveyed to her since childhood in her father’s house. The ugliest thing is that, of course, she died devoid of any distinct doubt. It is most probable that her soul was devoid of distinct doubt or so-called queries. Likewise, it is quite probable that she implicitly believed, without further verification, everything which had been imparted to her since childhood. This means that she simply died of “cold darkness and tedium” with, so to speak, animal and un-accountable suffering; she began to suffocate as if there were not enough air. The soul unaccountably proved unable to bear rectilinearness and unaccountably demanded something more complex. . . .

About a month ago there appeared in all Petersburg newspapers a few short lines, in small type, about a Petersburg suicide: a poor young girl, a seamstress, jumped out of a window on the fourth floor “because she was utterly unable to find work for her livelihood.” It was added that she jumped and fell to the ground, holding a holy image in her hands. This holy image in the hands is a strange, as yet unheard-of, trait in a suicide! This was a timid and humble suicide. Here, apparently, there was no grumbling or reproach: simply it became impossible to live, “God does not wish it”—and she died, having said her prayers.

There are certain things—much as they may seem simple—over which one does not cease to ponder for a long time; they come back in one’s dreams, and one even thinks that he is to be blamed for them. This meek soul which destroyed itself involuntarily keeps vexing ones mind. It was precisely this death that reminded me of the suicide of the emigrant’s daughter, which was communicated to me last summer. But how different are these two creatures; they seem to have come from two different planets! How different these two deaths! and which of these two souls had suffered more on earth—if such an idle question is becoming and permissible?

The Verdict

Apropos, here is the deliberation of a suicide out of tedium—of course, a materialist.

“. . . Indeed, what right did this nature have to bring me into this world pursuant to some of her eternal laws? I am created with consciousness and I did conceive nature: what right had she, therefore, to beget me without my will, without my will as a conscious creature?—Conscious implies suffering, but I do not wish to suffer, since why should I consent to suffering? Nature, through the medium of my consciousness, proclaims to me some sort of harmony of the whole. Human consciousness has produced religions out of this message. Nature tells me—even though I know well that I neither can nor ever shall participate in this ‘harmony of the whole,’ and besides, that I shall never even comprehend what it means—that nevertheless I must submit to this message, abase myself, accept suffering because of the harmony of the whole, and consent to live. However, if I were to make a conscious choice, of course I should rather wish to be happy only that moment when I exist, whereas I have no interest whatever in the whole and its harmony after I perish, and it does not concern me in the least whether this whole with its harmony remains in the world after me or whether it perishes simultaneously with me. And why should I bother about its preservation after I no longer exist?—that’s the question. It would have been better to be created like all animals—i.e., living but not conceiving myself rationally. But my consciousness is not harmony, but, on the contrary, precisely disharmony, because with it I am unhappy. Look: who is happy in this world and what kind of people consent to live?—Precisely those who are akin to animals and come nearest to their species by reason of their limited development and consciousness. These readily consent to live but on the specific condition that they live as animals, i.e., eat, drink, sleep, build their nest and bring up children. To eat, drink and sleep, in the human tongue, means to grow rich to and plunder, while to build one’s nest pre-eminently signifies-to plunder. Perhaps I may be told that one may arrange one’s life and build one’s nest on a rational basis, on scientifically sound social principles, and not by means of plunder, as heretofore.—All right, but I ask: What for? What is the purpose of arranging one’s existence and of exerting so much effort to organize life in society soundly, rationally and righteously in a moral sense? Certainly no one will ever be able to give me an answer to this question. All that could be said in answer would be: ‘To derive delight.’ Yes, were I a flower or a cow, I should derive delight. But, incessantly putting questions to myself, as now, I cannot be happy even in face of the most lofty and immediate happiness of love of neighbor and of mankind, since I know that tomorrow all this will perish: I and all the happiness, and all the love, and all mankind will be converted into naught, into former chaos. And on such a condition, under no consideration, can I accept any happiness—and not because of my refusal to accept it, not because I am stubbornly adhering to some principle, but for the simple reason that I will not and cannot be happy on the condition of being threatened with tomorrow’s zero. This is a feeling—a direct and immediate feeling—and I cannot conquer it. All right: if I were to die but mankind, instead me, were to persist forever, then, perhaps I might be consoled. However, our planet is not eternal, while mankind’s duration is just as brief a moment as mine. And no matter how rationally, happily, righteously and holily mankind might organize its life on earth—tomorrow all this will be made equal to that same zero. And even though all this be necessary, pursuant to some almighty, eternal and fixed law of nature, yet, believe me, in this idea there is some kind of most profound disrespect for mankind which, to me, is profoundly insulting and all the more unbearable as here there is no one who is guilty.

“And, finally, even were one to presume the possibility of that tale about man’s ultimate attainment of a rational and scientific organization of life on earth—were one to believe this tale and the future happiness of man, the thought itself that, because of some inert laws, nature found it necessary to torture them thousands and thousands of years before granting them that happiness—this thought itself is unbearably repulsive. And if you add to this that this very nature which, finally, had admitted man to happiness will, for some reason, tomorrow find it necessary to convert all this into zero despite all the suffering with which mankind has paid for this happiness and—what is most important—without even bothering to conceal this from my consciousness, as it did conceal it from the cow-willy-nilly, there arises a most amusing, but also unbearably sad, thought: “What if man has been placed on earth for some impudent experiment—just for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not this creature is going to survive on earth?” The principal sadness of this thought is in the fact that here, again, there is no guilty one; no one conducted the experiment; there is no one to damn, since everything simply came to pass as a result of the inert laws of nature, which I do not understand at all, and with which my consciousness is altogether unable to reconcile itself. Ergo:

“Inasmuch as to my questions on happiness I am receiving from nature, through my own consciousness, only the answer that I can be happy not otherwise than the within harmony of the whole, which I do not comprehend, and which, it is obvious to me, I shall never be able to understand­­—

“Inasmuch as nature not only does not admit my right to demand an account from her, but even gives me no answer whatsoever—and not because she does not want to answer, but because she is unable to give me an answer—

“Inasmuch as I have convinced myself that nature, in order to answer my queries, designates (unconsciously) my own self and answers them with my own consciousness (since it is I who say all this to myself)—

“Finally, since, under these circumstances, I am assuming both the roles of a plaintiff and of a defendant, that of an accused and of a judge; and inasmuch as I consider this comedy, on the part of nature, altogether stupid, and to be enduring this comedy on my own part—even humiliating—

“Now, therefore, in my unmistakable role of a plaintiff and of a defendant, of a judge and of an accused, I sentence this nature, which has so unceremoniously and impudently brought me into existence for suffering, to annihilation, together with myself.

…And because I am unable to destroy nature, I am destroying only myself, weary of enduring a tyranny in which there is no guilty one.

N. N.”

Arbitrary Assertions 

My article—The Verdict—refers to the basic and loftiest idea of human existence—the necessity and inevitability of a belief in the immortality of the human soul. The underlying idea of this confession of a man perishing as a result of “a logical suicide” is the necessity of the immediate inference that without faith in one’s soul and its immortality, man’s existence is unnatural, unthinkable, impossible. Now, it seemed to me that I have dearly expressed the formula of a logical suicide, that I have discovered it. In him there is no faith in immortality; this he explains in the very beginning. Little by little, the thought of his aimlessness and his hatred of the muteness of the surrounding inertia lead him to the inevitable conviction of the utter absurdity of man’s existence on earth. It becomes clear as daylight to him that only those men can consent to live who resemble the lower animals and who come nearest to the latter by reason of the limited development of their minds and their purely carnal wants. They agree to live specifically as animals, i.e., in order “to eat, drink, sleep, build their nests and raise children.” Indeed, eating, sleeping, polluting and sitting on soft cushions will long attract men to earth, but not the higher types. Meanwhile, it is the higher types that are and always have been, sovereign on earth, and invariably it so happened that, when the time was ripe, millions of people followed them.

I even assert and venture to say that love of mankind in general, as an idea, is one of the most incomprehensible ideas for the human mind. Precisely as an idea. Sentiment alone can vindicate it. However, sentiment is possible precisely only in the presence of the accompanying conviction of the immortality of man’s soul. (Another arbitrary assertion.)

It is clear, then, that suicide—when the idea of immortality has been lost—becomes an utter and inevitable necessity for any man who, by his mental development, has even slightly lifted himself above the level of cattle. On the contrary, immortality—promising eternal life—ties man all the more strongly to earth. Here there is a seeming contradiction: if there is so much life—that is, if in addition to earthly existence there is an immortal one—why should one be treasuring so highly his earthly life? And yet, the contrary is true, since only with faith in his immortality does man comprehend the full meaning of his rational destination on earth. However, without the faith in his immortality, man’s ties with earth are severed, they grow thinner and more putrescent while the loss of the sublime meaning of life (felt at least in the form of unconscious anguish) inevitably leads to suicide.

Hence, the reverse moral of my October article: “If faith in immortality is so essential to man’s existence, it is, therefore, a normal condition of the human race and, this being so, the immortality itself of the human soul exists undeniably.” In a word, the idea of immortality is life itself—“live life,” its ultimate formula, the mainspring of truth and just consciousness for humankind. Such was the object of my article, and I supposed that, willy-nilly, everyone who had read it would so comprehend it.

A Few Words About Youth 

Well, by the way. Perhaps it may be pointed out to me that in our age suicide is being committed by men who have never dwelt upon any abstract problems; nevertheless, they kill themselves mysteriously, without any apparent reason. In truth, we do perceive a great number of suicides (their abundance is also a mystery sui generis), strange and mysterious, committed not by reason of poverty or some affront, without any apparent reasons and not at all because of material need, unrequited love, jealousy, ill-health, hypochondria or insanity—but God only knows why. In our day, such cases constitute a great temptation, and since it is impossible to deny that they have assumed the proportions of an epidemic, they arise in the minds of many people as a most disturbing question. Of course, I am not venturing to explain all these suicides,—this I cannot do—but I am firmly convinced that the majority of the suicides, in toto, directly or indirectly, were committed as a result of one and the same spiritual illness—the absence in the souls of these men of the sublime idea of existence. In this sense our indifference, as a contemporary Russian illness, is gnawing all souls. Verily, in Russia there are people who pray God and go to church but who do not believe in the immortality of their souls—i.e.,not that they do not believe in it, but they simply never think of it. Even so, at times they are by no means people of the cast-iron, the bestial, pattern. However, as stated above, the whole sublime purpose and meaning of life, the desire and the urge to live, emanate only from this faith. I repeat, there are many people desirous to live without any ideas, without any sublime meaning of life—simply to pursue an animal existence as some lower species. And yet there are many individuals—what is most curious apparently extremely coarse and vicious ones—whose nature, however, perhaps without their knowledge, has long been craving for sublime aims and the lofty meaning of life. These will not be appeased by love of eating, by the love of fish-pies, beautiful trotters, debauch, ranks, bureaucratic power, the adoration of their subordinates and the hall porters at the doors of their mansions. Men of this caliber will precisely shoot themselves apparently for no reason, and yet it will be necessarily because of anguish, unconscious perhaps, for the sublime significance of life which they have found nowhere. On top of that, some of them will shoot themselves after having preliminarily perpetrated some scandalous villainy, abomination or monstrosity. Of course, looking at many of these cases it is difficult to believe that they committed suicide because of the longing for the sublime aims of life:“Why, they never thought about any aims; they never spoke about any such things and they merely committed villainies!”—such is the common opinion. But let us admit that they were not concerned about these things and that they did perpetrate villainies: do you positively know how, by what devious ways, in the life of society this sublime anguish is being conveyed to one’s soul and contaminates it?—Ideas soar through the air but necessarily in accordance with some laws; ideas live and spread in accordance with laws which are too difficult for us to record; ideas are contagious. And do you know that in the general mood of life a certain idea or concern or anguish, accessible only to a highly educated and developed intellect may suddenly be imparted to an almost illiterate, coarse creature who was never concerned about anything, and may contaminate his soul with its influence? Again, I may be told that in our age even children are committing suicide, or such raw youths as have had no life experience. Even so, I am secretly convinced that it is our youth that suffers and agonizes because of the absence of sublime aims of life. In our families practically no mention is made about the sublime aims of life, while not only do they not give the slightest thought to the idea of immortality but much too frequently a satirical attitude is adopted toward it—and this in the presence of children from their early childhood, and perhaps with an express didactic purpose.

On Suicide and Haughtiness

 But it is time to finish up with Mr. N. P. To him happened the thing which happens to many people of his “type”: what is clear to them and what they can most readily comprehend they conceive to be stupid. They are much more inclined to despise lucidity than to praise it. It is different if a flourish or a fog accompanies something: “This we don’t understand—therefore, it is deep.”

He says that the “deliberation” of my suicide is merely “the delirium of a half-crazy man” and that that is “well known.” I am very much inclined to believe that the “deliberation” became “known” to him only after he had read my article. As to the “delirium of a half-crazy man” (is this known to Mr. N. P. and the whole collection of the N. P.’s?), it—i.e., the inference of the necessity of suicide—is too much to many people in Europe, as it were, the last word of science. I have expressed this “last word of science” in brief terms, clearly and popularly with the sole purpose of refuting it—not by reasoning or logic, since it cannot be refuted by logic (I challenge not only Mr. N. P. but anyone to refute logically this “delirium of the insane”), but by faith, by the deduction of the necessity of faith in the immortality of man’s soul; by the inference of the conviction that this faith is the only source of “live life” on earth—of life, health, sane ideas and sound deductions and inferences. . . . And, in conclusion—something altogether comic. In the same October issue I reported the suicide of an emigrant’s daughter: she soaked a piece of cotton wool in chloroform, tied it around her face and lay down on the bed. And thus she died. Before death she wrote a note: “I am undertaking a long journey, If I should not succeed, let people gather to celebrate my resurrection with a bottle of Cliquot. If I should succeed, I ask that I be interred only after I am altogether dead, since it is very disagreeable to awake in a coffin in the earth. This is not chic!”

Mr. N. P, haughtily grew angry with this “vain little” suicide, and came to the conclusion that her act “deserves no attention whatsoever.” He also grew angry with me for my “exceedingly naive” question as to which one of the two suicides had suffered more on earth. At this juncture there ensued something comical. Unexpectedly he added: “ I daresay that a man who desires to greet his return to life with a champagne glass in his hand—[of course, in his hand]—did not suffer much in this life if, with such triumph, once more he enters it without changing in the least its conditions, and even without thinking about them. . . .”

What a funny thought and what a ludicrous consideration! Here he was mostly tempted by champagne: “He who drinks champagne cannot suffer.” But were she so fond of champagne, she would have continued to live so as to drink it, whereas she wrote about champagne before her death—i.e., real death—knowing well that she would die without fail. She could not have believed much in the chance of her recovery to life; nor did this chance present anything attractive to her, because recovery, of course, would have meant to her recovery to a new suicide. Thus, here champagne was of no consequence, i.e., not at all for the purpose of consuming it—and is it possible that this has to be explained? And she wrote about champagne from the desire, when dying, to perpetrate some cynicism as abominable and filthy as possible. And she selected champagne precisely because she could not conceive a filthier, more abominable picture than this drinking bout at the time of her “resurrection from the dead.” She had to write this in order to insult, with this filth, everything she was forsaking on earth, to damn earth and her whole earthly life, to spit on it and to declare that spittle to her relatives whom she was leaving behind.

Whence such a spite in a seventeen-year-old girl? (N. B. She was seventeen, and not twenty, as I erroneously put it in my article. Subsequently I was corrected by those who know this incident better.) And against whom was that spite directed? No one had offended her; she was in need of nothing, and she died apparently also for no reason whatever. But precisely this note; precisely the fact that at such a moment she was eager to perpetrate such a filthy and spiteful cynicism—and this is obvious—this precisely leads one to think that her life was immeasurably more chaste than this filthy twist; and that spite, the boundless exasperation of that twist, on the contrary, bears witness to the suffering and painful mood of her spirit, to her despair in the last moment of her life. If she had died of some apathetic weariness, without knowing why, she would not have perpetrated this cynicism. One has to take a more humane attitude toward such a spiritual condition. Here, suffering was obvious and certainly she died of spiritual anguish having greatly suffered.

What could have tormented her so much at the age of seventeen?—But herein is the dreadful question of our age. I have set forth the hypothesis that she died of anguish (too premature an anguish) and of aimlessness of life, only because of the upbringing, perverted by theory, at her parents’ home—an upbringing involving an erroneous conception of the sublime significance and aims of life, a deliberate extermination in her soul of all faith in its immortality. Let this be only my supposition. Yet certainly she did not die merely for the purpose of leaving after her that abject note—to cause surprise, as Mr. N. P. seems to think. “No man shall hate his flesh.” Self-extermination is a serious thing despite any chic or display, while epidemic self-extermination, assuming ever-increasing proportions among the educated classes, is all too momentous a phenomenon which deserves relentless observation and study.

Some eighteen months ago a highly talented and competent member of our judiciary showed me a batch of letters and notes of suicides in their own handwriting, collected by him—notes which had been written by them immediately before, i.e., five minutes before, death. I remember two lines written by a fifteen-year-old girl. Likewise, I recall pencil scrawls written in a carriage in which the suicide shot himself before he had reached his destination. I believe that even if Mr. N. P. could have perused this intensely interesting batch, perhaps even in his soul there would have come a change, and consternation would have penetrated his tranquil heart. But this I do not know. In any event one should be dealing with these facts more humanely and not so haughtily. Perhaps we ourselves are guilty of these facts, and in the future no cast iron is going to save us from the calamitous consequences of our placidity and haughtiness—that is when time comes for these consequences.

The Boy Celebrating His Saint’s Day 

I have recalled this essay in detail intentionally. I received a letter from K—v in which the death of a child—also a twelve-year-old boy—is depicted. And … possibly there is something similar here. However, I shall quote parts of the letter without changing a single word in the quotations. The topic is curious.

“On November 8, after dinner, the news spread in town that a suicide had taken place: a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy, a high school pupil, had hanged himself. Here are the circumstances of the case. A school-master teaching a subject, the lesson of which, that morning, the deceased boy failed to learn, punished the boy by retaining him at school till five o’clock in the evening. The pupil walked around for a while; then he untied a rope from a pulley which he happened to notice; he tied the rope to a nail on which usually the so-called golden or red plate hangs which for some reason, had been removed that day, and hanged himself. The watchman who had been washing the floor in the adjacent rooms, upon discovering the unfortunate boy, hastened to the inspector. The inspector came running; the suicide was extricated from the noose, but they failed to revive him. . . . What was the cause of the suicide? The boy was not inclined toward violence and bestiality; generally speaking, he studied well, and only of late he had received several unsatisfactory marks from his school-master, and for this he was punished. . . . It is rumored that both the boy’s father, a very severe man, and the boy himself, that day celebrated their saint’s day. Perhaps the youngster, with childish delight, was meditating how he would be greeted at home—by his mother, father, little brothers and sisters. . . . And now he has to sit all alone, hungry, in an empty building and ponder over the father’s dreadful wrath which he will have to face, over the humiliation, shame and, perhaps, punishment which he will have to endure. He knew about the possibility of committing suicide (and who among children of our epoch do not know this?). One feels terribly sorry for the deceased boy, for the inspector, an excellent man and pedagogue, whom the pupils adore; one also feels afraid for the school within whose walls such phenomena take place. What did the classmates of the deceased and other children studying there, among whom in the preparatory classes there are perfect little darlings, feel when they learned about the incident? Isn’t this too harsh a training? Isn’t too much significance attached to marks—to twos and ones, to golden and red plates, on the nails of which pupils hang themselves? Isn’t there too much formalism and dry heartlessness in the matter of our education?”

Of course, one feels awfully sorry for the little boy celebrating his saint’s day, but I will not enlarge upon the probable causes of this sad incident, and particularly upon “marks, twos, and excessive severity,” etc. All these also existed before, and there were no suicides, so that the cause is not to be sought here. I took the episode from Count Tolstoy’s Youth because of the similarity of the two cases; yet there is also an enormous difference. No doubt Misha, who celebrated his saint’s day, killed himself not from anger and not merely from fear. Both these feelings—anger and pathological fear—are too simple, and these would more probably find an outcome in themselves. However, fear of punishment could have exercised some influence, especially in the presence of pathological suspiciousness. Nevertheless, even in this case the feeling could have been much more complex, and again it is very possible that there transpired something similar to what was depicted by Count Tolstoy, i.e., suppressed, not yet conscious, childish queries, a strong feeling of some oppressive injustice, an early suspicious and painful perception of personal nullity, a pathologically developed query: “Why does everybody so dislike me?” a passionate desire to compel people to pity one, i.e., a passionate thirst for love on the part of them all, and a multitude, a multitude of other complications and nuances.

The point is that these or other such nuances, unfailingly, were there, but there were also traits of some new reality, altogether different from that which prevailed in the pacified and firmly, long ago structuralized landowner’s family of the middle-upper stratum of which Count Tolstoy was our historian, and apparently at that very epoch when the former order of nobility established upon the earlier landowners’ foundations, was affected by some new, still unknown but radical change,—at least by some enormous regeneration into novel, still latent, almost utterly unknown forms. There is here in this incident of the boy celebrating his saint’s day one particular trait distinctly belonging to our epoch. Count Tolstoy’s boy could meditate with valetudinary tears of effete emotionalism in his soul that they would enter the closet and would find him dead, and that they would begin to love and pity him, and blame themselves. He could even have meditated about suicide, but only meditated: the rigorous order of the historically formed noble family would have had its effect, even upon a twelve-year-old child, and would have prevented the dream from being converted into reality, whereas here—the boy meditated and acted accordingly.

The Dream of A Strange Man: A Fantastic Story

You see: even though it made no difference to me, nevertheless I did feel pain. Should anyone have struck me, I should have felt a pain. The same—in the moral sense: should anything pitiful have occurred, I should have felt pity exactly as in the days when I had not yet felt that “it made no difference.” Just now I also felt pity: most certainly I would have helped a child. Why, then did I not help that little girl?—Because of a thought which occurred to me: as she was pulling and calling me, suddenly a question arose before me and I couldn’t solve it. It was an idle question but I grew angry. I grew angry because of the belief that, once I had decided that l would commit suicide that night, everything in the world, more than ever, should have made no difference to me. Why, then, all of a sudden, did I feel that not everything was a matter of indifference to me and that I was pitying the little girl?

I recall that I felt great pity for her—to the point of some strange pain which was quite incredible in my situation. Truly, I am unable to describe better that fleeting feeling but it also persisted at home, while I was already sitting by the table, and I was much irritated,—as I haven’t been for so long. Deliberations followed one another. It seemed clear that if I were a man, and not yet a zero, and while I was not yet reduced to a zero, I was living and, therefore, I could suffer, be angry and feel ashamed of my actions. All right. But if I should kill myself, say, in two hours, what would the little girl be to me, what would shame and everything in the world matter to me?—I am being reduced to a zero—an absolute zero. And it is possible that the realization of the fact that in an instant I shall be completely nonexistent, and that, therefore, nothing will exist, could have exercised no influence upon the feeling of pity for the little girl and the feeling of shame for the villainy which I have committed?—for I stamped at the unfortunate child and shouted at her in a brutal voice because I said to myself: “Not only do I feel no pity, but even should I commit an inhuman villainy,—now I can commit it because in two hours everything will be extinct.” Would you believe that this was the reason why I began to shout? At present I am almost sure of that.

It seemed clear that now life and the world were, so to speak, dependent on me. It may even have been said that the world has been created for me alone: I will shoot myself, and the world will not exist, at least for me. Not to speak of the fact that, perhaps, after me in reality nothing will exist for anyone, and that the moment my consciousness is extinguished the whole world, too, will vanish as a phantom, as an adjunct of my consciousness, and will become nonexistent, since, perhaps, this whole world and all these men are nothing but I myself.

I recall that while I was sitting and deliberating, I turned all these new questions, which crowded in my mind, one after another, in an altogether different direction and conceived something radically new. For example, suddenly, a strange thought occurred to me: What if formerly I had lived on the moon or on Mars, and if there I should have perpetrated the most shameful and dishonest act that could possibly be conceived; and, further, that if over there I should have been abused and dishonored in a manner that may be conceived and felt only in a dream,in a nightmare; and if subsequently, finding myself on the earth, I should continue to be conscious or the act I had committed on the other planet, and, besides, that I should know that never, under any circumstance, should I return thither,—then, looking from the earth at the moon, would it, or would it not, make a difference? Should I, or should I not, feel ashamed of my act?

These were idle and superfluous questions since the revolver lay already before me, and with all my being I knew that this would unfailingly occur, yet they excited me and made me mad. Now—it seemed—I should be unable to die without having first solved something.

In a word, that little girl saved me since, because of the questions, I had postponed the shot. Meanwhile, in the captain’s room things began to quiet down: they finished their card game and now they were settling down for the night, and in the meantime they kept grumbling and were idly continuing to abuse one another. At this juncture, suddenly, I fell asleep in the armchair by the table, which has never happened to me before. I fell asleep quite imperceptibly to myself. Dreams, as is known, are very strange phenomena: one thing appears with awful lucidity, with jewelled finish of detail; but other things are skipped, as it were, quite unnoticed—for instance, space and time.

It would seem that dreams are generated not by the intellect but by desires, not by the brain but by the heart. And yet, at times, what extremely complicated things did my mind perform in sleep! For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in my dreams: he participates in my affairs; we take a great interest in them; even so, through the whole dream, I distinctly know and remember that he died and was buried. Why am I not surprised that, though dead, he is still right here, at my side and busies himself together with me? Why does my reason admit all this?

But enough. I am turning to my dream. Yes, I saw this dream, my dream, on the third of November! They are teasing me by insisting that this was only a dream. But is it not all the same whether or not this was a dream, if it has enunciated to me the Truth? For once you have learned the Truth, you have beheld it, you know that it is the Truth, that there is and can be no other Truth whether you be sleeping or waking. All right: let it be a dream; let it; but that life which you are so extolling, I sought to extinguish with suicide, and my dream, my dream—oh, it has enunciated to me a new, great, regenerated, vigorous life!


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from Note, Christmas Eve, 1850
from Nightingale’s draft novel
from Draft for Suggestions for Thought    to Searchers After Religious Truth    (1860)
from Notes on Nursing for the    Labouring Classes (1861)
from Note to Benjamin Jowett (c. 1866)
Reflections on
George MacDonald’s    Novel, Robert Falconer (1868)
Truth and Feeling (1871 or later)

from Notes on Egypt: Mysticism and    Eastern Religions


Florence Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy (hence her name), but raised by her wealthy family in England, educated primarily by her father. As a member of the upper class, she was expected to marry, to visit, and to entertain. She detested the prospect of this enforced, purposeless idleness, and throughout her 20s, she suffered frustration and depression. At age 16, she experienced a “call to service,” but her family refused to allow her to become a nurse, an unthinkable life for a lady, involving as it would exposure to disease, dirt, and violations of Victorian modesty concerning the human body; nurses were notorious for drinking on the job, demanding bribes, and being sexually available, if not actually prostitutes. It was not until she was 33 that she was finally able to practice nursing, as superintendent of an institution for gentlewomen.

In November 1854, during the Crimean War 4, Nightingale led 38 British women, the first to nurse in war, to Scutari (now known as Üsküdar, Turkey). The Barrack Hospital to which they were sent was merely a converted Turkish barrack, lacking in running water, functioning toilets, beds, bedding and laundry facilities. She worked assiduously to improve conditions. Its high death rates were brought down, but not until the arrival of the Sanitary Commission, which made the necessary structural repairs. Nightingale learned the lessons of infectious disease in the process. She returned to England a heroine, although seriously ill. She used a fund of about £50,000 fund raised in her honor at the end of the war to found the first secular training school for nurses. After the war, her chief collaborator was the head of the Sanitary Commission, with whom she had worked to bring down death rates at the Barrack Hospital. For most of her long life, she did research and wrote from her London home, meeting with officials and experts there. An expert methodologist, she was the first woman fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. She did substantial research for two royal commissions, on the Crimean War and on India, both situations with high rates of preventable mortality. She gave some 40 years of work to improving health care and preventing famine in India. At home, she did much to bring professional nursing into the dreaded workhouses. She was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit (1907).

For Nightingale, nursing was part of a broader approach to public health care, emphasizing prevention, health promotion, and hospital reform. Her work was grounded in a strong Christian faith, rather heterodox and liberal, drawing on sources well beyond her own Church of England. Reforms could be achieved by learning God’s laws, she believed, which required rigorous research and careful ongoing monitoring; in this way, people could become God’s “coworkers” in the betterment of the world.

Nightingale’s concern with suicide was both personal and professional. The early selections here, including a diary note dated Christmas Eve, 1850, exhibit her anguish over the choices she faced: whether to marry a man she loved, her long-time suitor Richard Monckton Milnes (knowing that marriage at that time would mean a life of domestic seclusion), or to reject the proposal in favor of a meaningful career (a barely tenable choice for someone of her societal position). Nightingale desperately wanted to work; to marry and thus foreclose this possibility, she said, “would seem like suicide.”

Nightingale made use of the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet’s (1796–1874) work on suicide in Sur l’Homme et le developpement de ses facultés, ou Essai de Physique Sociale (1835) (Treatise on Man and the Development of his Faculties), which, much like the work of Durkheim [q.v.] over half a century later, used statistical methods in regarding suicide as something to be studied like other demographic phenomena. As Nightingale notes in Suggestions for Thought, this is not to assume that suicide is predetermined or “caused” by statistical laws.

While Nightingale generally regarded suicide as wrong, she regarded as an even greater wrong the administrative slackness and incompetence of many institutions, including hospitals and war agencies, which cost so many lives. Nightingale’s overall response to suicide or suicide attempts was to encourage compassionate rather than punitive treatment as a felony offense, in both her notes on George MacDonald’s serial novel Robert Falconer (3 vols., 1868) and in her insistence on the importance of care to prevent suicide and reform in hospital conditions, especially the understaffing of nurses. She also recommended that a column for “suicide” be added in the Army medical returns.

Selections from The Collected Works of Florence Nightingale, Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Diary entries, 1850, from Vol. 2, Florence Nightingale’s Spiritual Journey: Biblical Annotations, Sermons and Journal Notes, ed. Lynn McDonald, 2001, pp. 383-384; passage from a draft novel and a fictional dialogue for Suggestions for Thought from vol. 8, “Notes on Nursing for the Labouring Classes (1861),” in Florence Nightingale on Public Health Care 6:67. Note to Benjamin Jowett, add. ms. 45783 f86; “Reflections on George MacDonald’s novel Robert Falconer,” from vol. 3, Florence Nightingale’s Theology: Essays, Letters and Journal Notes, ed. Lynn McDonald, 2002, pp. 631-632; “Truth and Feeling,” Theology 3:169; “Notes on Egypt,” Florence Nightingale on Mysticism and Eastern Religions 4:285, n. 298. Material in introduction contributed by Lynn McDonald.


In my thirty-first year, I can see nothing desirable but death.  Entire change of air. Lord, Thou knowest my heart; I cannot understand it. I am ashamed to understand it. I know that if I were to see him [her suitor Richard Monckton Milnes] again, the very thought of doing so quite overcomes me. I know that, since I refused him, not one day has passed without my thinking of him, that life is desolate to me to the last degree without his sympathy. Yet, do I wish to marry him? I know that I could not bear his life, that to be nailed to a continuation and exaggeration of my present life without hope of another would be intolerable to me, that voluntarily to put it out of my power, ever to be able to seize the chance of forming for myself a true and rich life would seem to me like suicide. And yet my present life is suicide….


Many are only deterred from suicide because it is more than anything else to say to God  I will not–I will not do as Thou wouldst have me,  and because it is  no use.


But between God and man there is no such agreement. Man did not ask to be born. God never asked man whether he would undertake the charge of himself or not. Many a one, if so asked, would certainly say, No, I cannot undertake this anxious existence, not even in view of the ultimate happiness secured to me. But He is too good a Father to put it into His children’s power to refuse it. If He were to do this, timid spirits would all resign at once. According to the theory of responsibility, suicide would be justified. For a man may put an end to his service, if dissatisfied with it….

…So Quetelet makes his computations that so many people will commit suicide, that so many widowers will marry three times; and we call it, and justly (supposing the computation correct), a law, and then, with our vague ideas that a law is a coercive force, we cry, “Oh! how horrid–then there is a law which compels so many people to commit suicide in a twelvemonth.” But the law, which is merely a statistical table, has no power to make people commit suicide. So you might as well say that Newton’s law has the power to make the stone fall as Quetelet’s table to make the people commit suicide. Newton’s law is nothing but the statistics of gravitation, it has no power whatever.


The simple precaution of removing cords by which a patient can hang himself, razors by which he can cut his throat, out of his way, when inclined to do such things, is much neglected especially in private nursing. Many inquests upon suicides show this, and the friends are invariably absolved by the verdict!!

If you look into the reports of trials or accidents, and especially of suicides, or into the medical history of fatal cases, it is almost incredible how often the whole thing turns upon something which has happened because “he,” or still oftener “she,” “was not there.” But it is still more incredible how often, how almost always, this is accepted as a sufficient reason, a justification; why, the very fact of the thing having happened is the proof of its not being a justification.


Now certainly the poor man who embezzles his employers’ money, knowing it to be wrong, and goes and commits suicide, is much better, in a much more hopeful state than these most respectable people, who are wilfully stupid, who cannot be saved, who commit the sin against the Holy Ghost every day, who commit and permit all kinds of atrocities (and report and write and write and report) not knowing them to be so….

…But I don’t see that people have in the least gone on to discover and apply the laws by which there shall be no more, e.g., suicides, idiots, lunatics, tho’ we have discovered (but not applied) the laws by which there shall be no more cholera. (We do not say now, what a mystery it is that God should permit that dreadful plague, cholera.)

from REFLECTIONS ON GEORGE MacDONALD’S NOVEL, Robert Falconer (1868)

Those who talk sententiously (to the suicide) of the wrong done to a society which has done next to nothing for him…. I should say to him: “God liveth: thou art not thine own but his. Bear thy hunger, thy horror in His name. I in His name will help thee out of them, as I may. To go before He calleth thee is to say  ‘Thou forgettest’ unto Him who numbereth the hairs of thy head, such a loving and tender one who, for the sake of a good with which thou wilt be all content, and without which thou never couldst be content, permits thee there to stand–for a time–long to His sympathizing as well as to thy suffering heart.”…

(unpublished essay, 1871 or later)

 Free will and necessity, regarded as they usually are, namely, as mutually exclusive theories, are doubtless little or no better than mere words. Is there not a higher point of view from which they may be seen to be partial or relative truths, false when separated, true when combined, like the two pictures in a stereoscope?  Look at ourselves from our own side alone, as beings having no reference to God (and this is I am afraid what the respondent’s “matter of experience” comes to) we are free at all events to will. Look at ourselves from the side of an omniscient, omnipotent Being, as an opposite class of people do, (this really means think of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omni-one or two other things only, but devoid of all sense of that relationship between Himself and us, which when viewed from our side we call duty) and we can see no more room for man’s will now than for God’s will before.  Rise above all this alternation and strife.  It is a fancied freedom which the will exercises in opposition to God’s laws, for God’s laws are our laws, they are the laws of our own nature, essence and condition. It is a fancied necessity which constrains men to act, except in self-deterioration and destruction, according to God’s will. We are all free (as it is called) to commit suicide or murder, but our free will wills that we should not commit it.


That Ergamenes, a king of Ethiopia, was a funny fellow. He was the first to abolish suicide: according to Wilkinson [Manners and Customs 1:307], it had hitherto been the custom for the Ethiopian kings to receive word from the priests when the gods desired their presence, to which summons the kings immediately attended. But Wilkinson confines this custom to the Ethiopians, whereas the great Ramesses himself committed suicide, not, as it seems, from any disgust of life as “in the high Roman fashion”  nor from vanity which the oftenest prompts it now, nor was it considered any extraordinary event, but simply from impatience to enjoy the society of the gods and the rewards held out to men who love them. I confess, to me it seems more extraordinary it does not happen oftener than that it happens so often. It seems so natural to me that, if we really believed what we say, that the child should hasten into the presence of the Father whom it really loves, and by whom it believes itself to be loved, in a childish impatience, not waiting for the bell to ring or for the Father to want it.  It seems to me a later and more perfect development of the human understanding than we usually see, to perceive that the Father is everywhere, that we shall not be really nearer Him in another state than in this, that nearness is not in place but in the state of spirit and that the submissive mind, which seeks only to be one with the Father’s will and sees that will in its circumstances, is really nearest to the Father’s presence.

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from Peuchet on Suicide


Born in Trier, Prussia, the third of seven children, Karl Heinrich Marx was educated at home until the age of 13. His father, descended from a long line of rabbis, was prohibited by the Prussian authorities from practicing law as a Jew; he converted to Lutheranism despite his liberal, deistic beliefs. Karl attended the universities of Bonn and Berlin, where his involvement with political thought and activism began early. In 1842, he became the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, published in Cologne, but it was suppressed by the government a year later. He spent the next years in exile in Paris, where he wrote for the radical newspaper, Vorwärts, and in Brussels. When revolutionary activity broke out in 1848, he returned to Cologne to found the Neue Rheinische Zeitung; a year later, it too was suppressed, and he was expelled from Prussia. Marx then moved to London, devoting himself to developing his theory of socialism and to political activity in on behalf of revolution and social reform.

Marx collaborated with Friedrich Engels in the writing of the short and politically incendiary Communist Manifesto (1847) and in the extended theoretical work on political economy critiquing capitalism and developing communist economic theory, Das Kapital (3 vols., 1867, 1885, 1895), which Engels completed after Marx’s death. These works are particularly sensitive to issues of exploitation, which were central in Marx’s understanding of not only industrial capitalism and the labor theory of value, but also of suicide, as the selection here makes clear.

The excerpt is Marx’s only published discussion of suicide. It is his translation from the French of a text from Jacques Peuchet (1758–1830; Marx misidentifies Peuchet’s birth date as 1760), with interpolations added by Marx to augment the argument Peuchet was making. In the text here, Marx’s interpolations appear in boldface in the text; omissions from Peuchet’s text are provided in the footnotes. Peuchet, a prolific researcher and writer, and the editor of Dictionnaire Universel de la Géographie Commerçante, was the archivist of the Paris Police Prefecture, who, Marx tells us in his introduction to Peuchet’s text, drafted his memoirs as an old man, using materials from the Paris Police Archives and relying on his lengthy practical experience in police work and administration. With the interpolation of a few deft sentences, Marx transforms Peuchet’s already unsettling case histories—like the wedding of the daughter of a tailor that ends instead in suicide, or the case of the Creole from Martinique, whose sister-in-law is understood as property—into serious social critique. Marx’s translation/essay was published in 1846 in Gesellschaftsspiegel (Mirror of Society), a small German socialist journal in which Engels was involved, but it was not mentioned in any of the surviving letters with his colleagues at the time, nor was it reprinted during Marx’s lifetime. The original on which it is based, Peuchet’s Memoires tirés des archives de la police (1838), is available in a facsimile edition.

Eric A. Plaut and Kevin Anderson, eds., Marx on Suicide, trs. Eric A. Plaut, Gabrielle Edgcomb, and Kevin Anderson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999, pp. 45-70. Material in introduction from Kevin Anderson, “Marx on Suicide in the Context of His Other Writings on Alienation and Gender,” ibid., pp. 3-40. Footnotes deleted.


French critique of society has, at least partly, the great advantage of demonstrating the contradictions and the unnatural state of modern life, not only in the relationship between particular classes, but also in all spheres and forms of current intercourse. Indeed, their descriptions have a direct warmth of feeling, a richness of intuition, a worldly sensitivity and insightful originally for which one searches in vain in all other nations. One need only compare, for example, the critical descriptions of Owen and Fourier, insofar as they deal with actual intercourse to get a picture of the superiority of the French. It is by no means only the “socialist” French writers among whom one should look for these critical descriptions of social conditions. Included are writers of every type of literature, particularly those of fiction and biography. I shall use an excerpt about suicide from the Memoirs drawn from the Police Archives by Jacques Peuchet as an example of French critique. At the same time, it may show the extent to which it is the conceit of the benevolent bourgeoisie that the only issues are providing some bread and some education to the proletariat, as if only the workers suffer from present social conditions, but that, in general, this is the best of all possible worlds.

With Jacques Peuchet, as with many older French practitioners (now mostly deceased) who lived through the numerous upheavals since 1789—the numerous deceptions, enthusiasms, constitutions, rulers, defeats, and victories—there appeared a critique of the existing property, family, and other private relationships (in a word, of private life) as the necessary consequence of their political experiences.

Jacques Peuchet (born 1760) went from the fine arts to medicine, from medicine to law, from law to administration and police work.

Before the outbreak of the French revolution he worked, with the Abbé Morellet, on a Dictionnaire du Commerce of which only a prospectus appeared, and he preferred dealing with political economy and administration. He was a supporter of the French Revolution but only briefly. He soon turned to the royalist party, was for a time the director of the Gazette de France and later even took over, from Mallet-du-Pan, the infamous, royalist Mercure. Cleverly wending his way through the French Revolution, some times persecuted, then occupied in the Department of Administration and the Police, his five-volume Géographie commerçante (published in 1800) drew the attention of  Bonaparte, the First Consul, and he was appointed a member of the Council of Commerce and the Arts. Later, during the ministry of François von Neufchâteau, he assumed a higher administrative position. In 1814 the Restoration appointed him censor. During the 100 days he withdrew. With the reinstatement of the Bourbons, he attained the position of archivist of the Paris Prefecture of Police, a position he held until 1827. Peuchet was directly involved, and, as a writer, not without influence on the spokesmen for the Constituent Assembly, the Convention, the Tribunate, and, under the Restoration, the Chamber of Deputies. Among his many, mostly economic works, in addition to the aforementioned commercial-geography, his Statistique de la France (1807) is best known.

As an old man, Peuchet drafted his memoirs, partly from materials from the Paris Police Archives, partly from his long practical experience in police work and administration, but insisted they be published only posthumously.  Thus, under no circumstances can he be included among those “premature” socialists and communists who, as is well known, lack so totally the wonderful thoroughness and the all-encompassing knowledge of the vast majority of our writers, officials, and practical citizens.

Listen then to our archivist of the Paris Police Prefecture on the subject of suicide:

The yearly toll of suicides, which is to some extent normal and periodic, has to be viewed as a symptom of the deficient organization of our society. For, in times of industrial stagnation and its crises, in times of high food prices and hard winters, this symptom always becomes more prominent and takes on an epidemic character. At these times, prostitution and theft increase proportionately. Although penury is the greatest source of suicide, we find it in all classes, among the idle rich, as well as among artists and politicians. The varieties of reasons motivating suicide make a mockery of the moralists’ single-minded and uncharitable blaming.

Consumptive illnesses, against which present-day science is inadequate and ineffective, abused friendship, betrayed love, discouraged ambition, family troubles, repressed rivalry, the surfeit of a monotonous life, enthusiasm turned against itself.  These are all surely causes of suicide for natures of greater breadth.  The love of life itself, the energetic force of personality, often leads to releasing oneself from a contemptible existence.

Madame de Stael, whose greatest service was to beautifully stylize commonplace fictions, was eager to demonstrate that suicide is contrary to nature and that it cannot be understood as an act of courage.  Above all, she argued that it is more worthy to fight despair than to give in to it.  Such reasoning has little effect upon those souls who are overwhelmed be misfortune.  If they are religious, they may be thinking about a better world: if they believe in nothing they may be seeking the peace of nothingness.  Philosophical tirades have little value in their eyes and are a poor refuge from suffering.  Above all, it is absurd to claim that an act, which occurs so often, is an unnatural act.  Suicide is in no way unnatural, as we witness it daily.  What is contrary to nature does not occur.  It lies, on the contrary, in the nature of our society to cause so many suicides, while the Tartars do not commit suicide.  Not all societies bring forth the same results.  We must keep this in mind in working to reform our society to allow it to reach a higher level. What characterizes courage, when one, designated as courageous, confronts death in the light of day on the battlefield, under the sway of mass excitement, is not necessarily lost, when one kills oneself in dark solitude.  One does not resolve such a difficult issue by insulting the dead.

All that has been said against suicide stems from the same circle of ideas.  One condemns suicide with foregone conclusions. But, the very existence of suicide is an open protest against these unsophisticated conclusions. They speak of our duty to this society, but not of our right to expect explanations and actions by our society.  They endlessly exalt, as the infinitely higher virtue, overcoming suffering, rather than giving in to it.  Such a virtue is every bit as sad as the perspective it opens up.  In brief, one has made suicide an act of cowardice, a crime against law, society, and honor.

How is it that people commit suicide, despite such great anathema against it?  The blood of the despairing does not flow through the same arteries as that of those cold beings who have the leisure to debate such fruitless questions.  Man is a mystery to man; one knows only how to blame him, but does not know him. Has one noticed how mindless the institutions are under whose rule Europe lives?  How they dispose of the life and blood of the people?  How civilized justice surrounds itself with large numbers of prisons, physical punishments, and instruments of death to enforce its doubtful arrests?  How one observes the shocking number of classes left in misery by all concerned?  How social pariahs are dealt brutal, preventive, contemptuous blows, perhaps so one does not have to take the trouble to pull them out of their dirt?  When one has noted all these things, one cannot comprehend how, in the name of what authority, an individual can be ordered to care an existence that our customs, our prejudices, our laws, and our mores trample under foot.

It has been believed that suicide could be prevented by abusive punishments and by branding with infamy the memory of the guilty one.  What can one say about the indignity of such branding, hurled at people who are no longer there to plead their case? The unfortunate rarely bother themselves with all this.  And, if the act of suicide accuses someone, it is usually those remaining behind, because in this crowd there was not one person for whom it was worth staying alive.  Have the childish and cruel means, that have been devised, successfully fought against the whisperings of despair?  To one who wishes to flee this world, how do the insults that the world promises to heap on his corpse matter?  He sees therein only another act of cowardice on the part of the living.  In fact, what kind of society is it wherein one finds the most profound loneliness in the midst of many millions of people, a society where one can be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to kill oneself without anyone of us suspecting it?  This society is no society, but, as Rousseau said, a desert populated by wild animals.  In the positions in police administration that I have held, suicides were part of my responsibilities.  I wanted to find out if, among the determining causes, one might find some whose consequences could prove to be prevented.  I undertook a comprehensive study of this subject. I found that, short of a total reform of the organization of our current society, all other attempts would be in vain. Among the sources for the despair that leads easily excitable people, passionate beings with deep feelings, to seek death, I found the primary cause was the bad treatment, the injustices, the secret punishments that these people received at the hands of harsh parents and superiors, upon whom they were dependent. The revolution did not topple all tyrannies. The evil which one blames on arbitrary forces exists in families, where it causes crises, analogous to those of revolutions.

We must first create, from the ground up, the connections between the interests and dispositions, the true relations among individuals.  Suicide is only one of the thousand and one symptoms of the general social struggle ever fought out on new ground.  Many warriors withdraw from this battle, because they are tired of being counted among the victims or to take a place of honor among the hangmen.  If you want some examples, I will draw them from authentic police proceedings.

In the month of July 1816 the daughter of a tailor became engaged to a butcher.  He was a young man of good morals, frugal and hardworking.  He was very taken with his beautiful fiancée.  She in turn was much drawn to him.  She was a seamstress and was held in high esteem by all who knew her, and the parents of her bridegroom loved her dearly.  These good people missed no opportunity to anticipate the arrival of their daughter-in-law.  They threw many parties wherein she was queen and idol.

The time for the wedding approached. All arrangements between the families had been completed and the contracts signed. The night before the day set for the trip to city hall, the young daughter and her parents were to have dinner with the bridegroom’s family. An unimportant event unexpectedly interfered.  The tailor and his wife had to stay home—customers from a rich house had to be taken care of.  They excused themselves; but the butcher’s mother came herself to pick up her daughter-in-law, who had received permission to follow her.

Despite the absence of two to the guests of honor, the dinner turned out to be one of the jolliest.  The anticipation of the wedding occasioned the telling of many family anecdotes. People drank; people sang. The future was discussed.  The joys of a good marriage were the subject of lively discussion.  Very late at night, all were still around the dining table. The parents of the young people, in an easily understandable indulgence, closed their eyes to the still secret understanding of the engaged couple. Hands sought each other. Love and intimacy were on their minds.

Besides, the marriage was a foregone conclusion and these young people had been visiting each other for a long time, without giving the slightest reason for reproach. The sympathy of the lovers’ parents, the advanced hour, the mutual longing (set free by the compassion of their mentors), the unabashed joyousness that reigns at such repasts, the wine spinning around in their heads, the opportunity that smilingly beckoned, all these combined to end in an easily anticipated result.  After the lights were dimmed, the lovers found themselves in the dark. One pretended to notice nothing; they had no inkling.  Here their happiness had only friends, no envious witnesses.

It was the next morning before the daughter returned to her parents.  That she returned alone is evidence that she had no sense of wrongdoing. She slipped into her room and performed her ablutions.  No sooner had her parents noticed her, than they furiously poured scandalous names and curse-words on her.  The neighborhood witnessed all this: there were no limits to the scandal.  The child was shattered by these judgments; her modesty and her privacy were outrageously assaulted.  The dismayed girl pointed out to her parents that they themselves brought blame upon her, that she admitted her wrong, her foolishness, her disobedience, but that all would be set to rights.  Her reasons and her pain did not disarm their fury. Those who are most cowardly, who are least capable of resistance themselves, become unyielding as soon as they can exert absolute parental authority. The abuse of that authority also serves as a cruel substitute for all the submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society acquiesce in, willingly or unwillingly. Neighborhood men and women, drawn to the uproar, supplied a chorus. This awful scene aroused such feelings of shame, that the child decided to take her own life.  In the midst of the crowd’s cursing and scolding, she rushed down to the Seine and, with a crazed look in her eyes, threw herself into the river.  The boat people pulled out her dead body still adorned with wedding jewelry.  Not surprisingly, those who had been screaming at the daughter, now turned against the parents.  The catastrophe scared these empty souls.  A few days later the parents came to the Police Bureau’s depository to reclaim that which had clearly belonged to their child—a gold necklace that had been a present from her future father-in-law, as well as a silver watch, earrings, and a ring with a small emerald, all objects deposited with the police, as would have been expected.  I did not fail forcefully to throw up to them their foolishness and barbarity.  Telling these infuriated ones that they would be accountable to God would have made little impression, given their hard-hearted prejudices and their particular kind of religiosity, so common among the lower mercantile classes.

It was greed that drew them to my office, not the claim to ownership of a few relics.  And, it was through their greed that I thought I could punish them.  They claimed their daughter’s jewelry; I refused to give it to them.  In order to get the jewelry which, according to the regulations, had been placed in the depository they needed a certificate that was in my possession.  So long as I held my position their claims were in vain.  I enjoyed defying their attacks on me.

That same year there appeared in my office a very attractive young Creole from one of Martinique’s richest families.He was absolutely opposed to our releasing the corpse of a young woman, his sister-in-law, to its claimant, the lady’s husband and his own brother.  She had drowned herself.  This is the most common form of suicide.  The officers assigned to fishing the corpse out of the river found the body near the Argenteuil shore.  Through one of their conscious instincts—namely shame—which governs women even when they are in darkest despair, the sad victim had carefully wrapped the seam of her dress around her feet.  This modest precaution was evidence that she had committed suicide.  She was hardly disfigured when the sailors brought her to the morgue.  Her beauty, her youth, her rich attire, her despair, occasioned a thousand speculations about the cause of this catastrophe.  The despair of her husband, the first to identify her, was boundless.  He did not understand this disaster, at least so I was told: I had not yet seen the man.  I told the Creole that the claims of the husband had priority.  He had ordered a magnificent marble tomb to hold the remains of his wife.

“After he killed her, the monster,” screamed the Creole, as he ran off enraged.

After the excitement, the despair of this young man, after his fervent supplications to grant his wishes, after his tears, I believed I could assume that he loved her and I told him so.  He confessed his love, but with the most vivid protestations that his sister-in-law never knew of this.  He swore to it.  Only to save his sister-in-law’s reputation, whose suicide public opinion would, as usual, ascribe to some intrigue, did he want to shed light upon the barbarity of his brother, even if thereby he were to place himself on the accuser’s bench.  He begged me for my support.

What I could ascertain from his disconnected, passionate description is as follows: M. de M., his brother, was rich and a connoisseur of the arts, a lover of high living and high society. He had married this young woman about one year before.  It seemed to have been mutual attraction; they were the loveliest pair imaginable. After the wedding, the bridegroom suddenly and strikingly began showing unmistakable signs of a possibly hereditary blood defect. This man, formerly so proud of his handsome appearance, his elegant figure in matchless perfection of form, suddenly fell victim to an unknown evil against whose devastation science was powerless. He was terribly transformed from head to toe. He had lost all his hair: his spine had become bent. Most noticeable were the day-to-day changes in his appearance as he became thinner and more wrinkled. At least this was so to others; his vanity sought to deny the obvious to himself. None of this made him bedridden. An iron will seemed to overcome the attacks of this evil.  Forcefully, he overcame the wreckage. His body fell in ruins, but his spirit soared. He continued organizing celebrations, overseeing hunting parties, continuing to live the life of wealth and splendor. It seemed to be built into his character and his nature. Yet, when he exercised his horse on the bridle paths, there were insults and innuendos, jokes by schoolboys and street children. There were rude and scornful smiles. The well-intentioned warnings by his friends about the frequent ridicule he was subjecting himself to by his fixation on gallant manners with the ladies, finally dissolved his illusions and caused him to be on his guard toward himself. As soon as he acknowledged his ugliness and deformity, as soon as he became conscious thereof, his character turned embittered and cowardice descended upon him.

He seemed less eager to take his wife to soirées, balls, and concerts.  He fled to his country home, ceased issuing any invitations, avoided people with a thousand excuses. So long as his pride gave him assurance of his superiority, he indulged his wife the attention she got from his friends. Now they made him jealous, suspicious, and violent. He saw in all those who persisted in visiting him the determination of making his wife’s heart surrender, she who was his last source of pride and his last consolation. At this time the Creole arrived from Martinique on business, the success of which seemed to benefit from the reinstatement of the Bourbons to the French throne. His sister-in-law welcomed him superbly.  In the course of the many connections that she arranged for him, the new arrival had the advantages to which his status as M. de M’s brother naturally entitled him. Our Creole foresaw the isolation of the household that was developing, stemming not only from the direct quarrels his brother had provoked with numerous friends, but also from the thousand occurrences by which visitors were driven away and discouraged. Without very much taking into account the amorous motives which made him also jealous, the Creole supported these ideas of isolation and furthered them himself through his advice.  M. de M. concluded the process by completely withdrawing to a lovely house in Passy that, in sort order, became a desert. The slightest thing will stir jealously. When it does not know where to turn, it feeds on itself and becomes inventive—everything nourishes it. Perhaps the young woman yearned for the pleasures suited to her age. Walls cut off the view of the neighbors’ houses, and the shutters were closed from dawn to dusk.

The unfortunate woman was condemned to unbearable slavery and M. de M. exercised his slaveholding rights, supported by the civil code and the right of property. These were based on social conditions which deem love to be unrelated to the spontaneous feelings of the lovers, but which permit the jealous husband to fetter his wife in chains, like a miser with his hoard of gold, for she is but a part of his inventory. M. de M., weapon in hand, strode around the house at night, and made his rounds with dogs. He imagined finding tracks in the sand.  He lost himself in strange assumptions about the placement of a ladder, which a gardener had moved.  The gardener himself, an almost 60 year-old drunkard, was placed as a guard at the door.  The spirit of exclusion knows no limits to its excesses, it extends to absurdity.  The brother, an innocent accomplice in all this, finally understood that he was collaborating in the young woman’s misfortune.

Day after day she was watched and insulted.  It robbed her of all that might have helped distract her through her rich and happy imagination. She became gloomy and melancholy, where before she had been free and cheerful.  She cried and hid her tears, but their traces were there to read. The Creole became remorseful. He decided to declare himself openly to his sister-in-law and to rectify his error, which surely stemmed from his secret feelings of love. One morning he crept into a little grove where the prisoner occasionally came to get some air and look after her flowers. Even in this circumscribed freedom, one has to believe, she knew she would be under the watchful eye of her jealous husband.

For at the sight of her brother-in-law, who at first appeared before her unexpectedly, she became greatly agitated and wrung her hands. “For God’s sake, leave!” she cried in a panic. “Leave.” And indeed, he had hardly hidden himself in a greenhouse, when M. de M. suddenly appeared. The Creole heard screams. He wanted to eavesdrop, but the pounding of his heart prevented his recourse to even the smallest word of explanation of this escapade, which, if discovered by the husband could result in a lamentable outcome.

This event spurred on the brother-in-law; from this day on he saw the necessity of becoming the victim’s protector.  He forced himself to give up hidden thoughts of love. Love can sacrifice anything except its right to protect, for this last sacrifice would be cowardice. He continued to visit his brother, prepared to talk openly with him, to tell him all, to expose himself. M. de M. had no suspicion of this aspect, but his brother’s persistence let it arise. Without clearly reading the cause of his bother’s interest, M. de M. mistrusted him, sensing in advance where it might lead.

The Creole soon realized that when he came to ring the bell at the gate to the house in Passy and received no answer, his brother was by no means always absent, as he subsequently claimed. A journeyman locksmith made him keys, copied from the models his master had used for M. de M. After ten days absence, the Creole, embittered by fear, and tortured by wild fantasies, climbed over the walls one night, broke the gate to the main courtyard, and, with a ladder, climbed up to the roof.  Sliding down a drainpipe, he reached a garret window. Loud cries induced him to sneak, unnoticed, to a glass door.  What he saw broke his heart.

A lamp brightly lit the alcove.  Beneath the draperies, his hair in disarray, his face purple with rage, a half-naked M. de M., on his knees near his wife on the same bed, showered biting reproaches on his wife who cowered, not daring to move, yet trying half-heartedly to extricate herself.  He was like a tiger, ready to tear her to pieces.

“Yes,” he said to her, “I am ugly.  I am a monster as I know only too well.  I scare you.  You wish to be freed from me, never again to be burdened with the sight of me.  You long for the moment that will make you free of me.  And, do not tell me the opposite.  I can read your thoughts in your fear and your repugnance. You blush at the undignified laughter that I arouse.  Deep down, I revolt you.  Surely you are counting every minute that has yet to pass until I shall no longer burden you with my infirmities and my presence.  Stop!  I am filled with horrible desires, a rage to disfigure you, to make you resemble me. Then you would no longer have the hope of solace from lovers for having the misfortune to have known me. I will shatter every mirror in this house, so that they will no longer reprove me with the contrast, will no longer serve to nourish you pride.  Must I take or let you go out into the world so all can encourage you to hate me?  No, no, you shall not leave this house until you have killed me.  Kill me; do it, that which I have been daily tempted to do.”

With loud cries, with gnashing of teeth, with spittle on his lips, with a thousand symptoms of madness, with enraged self-inflicted blows, the wild man threw himself on the bed near his unhappy wife. She wasted tender caresses as well as pathetic entreaties on him. Finally she tamed him. Pity had, undoubtedly, replaced love, but that was not enough for this now revolting man, whose passions still retained so much energy. A prolonged feeling of dejection followed this scene, which turned the Creole cold as stone.  He shuddered and knew not whom to turn to, to free the unfortunate woman from this deadly torment.

Apparently this scene was being repeatedly daily.  To allay the spasms that followed these scenes, Mme. de M. took refuge in the medicine bottles, prepared for the purpose of affording her tormentor some peace.

At this time the Creole was the sole representative of the family in Paris.  Perhaps he foresaw that starting legal proceedings would be risky.  It is above all in these cases that one wants to curse the law’s delays and its indifference. It cannot budge from its narrow, humdrum way, particularly when it is a question regarding a mere woman, the creature to whom the legislator provides the least protection.  Only an arrest warrant of an arbitrator’s act might have forestalled the tragedy that the witness to this madness forsaw.  Nevertheless, he decided to risk all, to accept the costs of his decisions as his fortune enabled him and to make enormous sacrifices, not fearing for the accountability for his bold undertaking.  Some physician friends of his, similarly determined, planned to break into M. de M.’s house to confirm the episodes of insanity and to separate the couple forcefully, when the occurrence of the suicide justified the too-long-delayed preparations and ended the problem.

Surely, for anyone who does not reduce to its literal meaning the whole spirit of a word, this suicide was an assassination perpetrated by the husband, but it was also the result of an intoxication of jealousy.  The jealous man requires a slave he can love, but that love is only a handmaiden for his jealousy.  Above all, the jealous man is a private property owner.

I prevented the Creole from creating a useless and dangerous scandal, primarily endangering the memory of his beloved, as the idle public would have accused the victim of an adulterous relationship with the husband’s brother. I witnessed the funeral. None but the brother and I knew the truth. Around me I heard unworthy mumblings about the suicide, and I regarded them with contempt. One blushes at public opinion when one observes it close at hand, with its cowardly malice and its salacious inferences. Opinion is too divided through the isolation of the people, too ignorant, too corrupt, for all are strangers to themselves and to one another.

Few weeks passed, by the way, without bringing me similar revelations. That same year I recorded love matches that ended in two pistol shots, occasioned by the refusal of parents to grant their consent.

I also recorded suicides by men of the world, reduced to impotence in the bloom of their youth, having been plunged into uncontrollable melancholy by the abuse of pleasures.

Many people end their days subject to this obsession. Medicine, after long, unnecessary torment through ruinous prescriptions, could not free them from their miseries.

One could compile a strange collection of quotations from famous authors and poets which the despairing have written, preparing for their death with a certain splendor. During the moment of wonderful cold-bloodedness that comes with the decision to die, breathes a kind of contagious inspiration that flows from these souls onto these pages, even among those classes who were deprived of education. As they gather themselves together before the sacrifice, whose depths they have plumbed, they summon up all their powers and, with characteristic, warm expression, bleed to death.

Some of these poems, now buried in the archives, are masterpieces. A dull bourgeois, who places his soul in his business and his God in commerce, can find all this to be very romantic and refute the pain that he cannot understand with derisive laughter.  We are not surprised by his derision. What else to expect from three-percenters, who have no inkling that daily, hourly, bit by bit, they kill themselves, their human nature.  But, what is one to say of those good people who play the devout, the educated, and still repeat this nastiness?

Undoubtedly, it is of great importance that the poor devils endure life, if only in the interest of the privileged classes of this world who would be ruined by the large scale suicide of this rabble. But, is there no other way to make the existence of this class bearable besides insult, derisive laughter, and beautiful words? Above all, there must exist a kind of greatness of soul in these beggars who, fixed on death as they are, destroy themselves rather than choosing the detour of the scaffold on the way to suicide.  It is true that the more progress our economy makes, the more rarely do these noble suicides occur, and conscious hostility takes its place and the unfortunate recklessly chance robbery and murder.  It is easier to get the death penalty than to get work.

In rummaging through the police archives, I found only a single obvious symptom of cowardice among the list of suicides.  It was the case of a young American, Wilfred Ramsay, who killed himself in order not to have to duel.

The classification of the different causes of suicide would be the classification of the failures of our society itself. One has killed oneself because some schemer stole one’s invention, on which occasion the inventor plunged into the most awful misery due to the long, learned investigation to which he had to submit, without even being able to buy a legal brief.  One has killed oneself to avoid the enormous cost and the demeaning persecution in financial difficulties, which have become so common, by the way, that those men mandated to administer the public weal pay no attention whatsoever.  One has killed oneself because one cannot find work, after having groaned for a long time under the insults and the stinginess of those among us who are the arbitrary distributors of work.

A physician consulted me one day regarding a death for which he accused himself of being responsible. One evening, on his return to Belleville, where he lived on a small street, he was stopped by a darkly veiled woman.  In a trembling voice she begged him to listen to her.  At some distance a person, whose features could not be discerned, was pacing up and down.  She was being watched over by a man.

“Sir,” she said to him, “I am pregnant and if this is discovered I will be dishonored.  My family, the opinion of the world, the people of honor would not forgive me.  The woman whose trust I have betrayed would go mad and would certainly divorce her husband.  I do not defend my actions.  I stand in the midst of a scandal whose eruption only my death can prevent.  I wish to kill myself; others want me to live.  I have been told that you are a compassionate man and this convinced me that you will not be an accomplice to the murder of a child, even an unborn one.  You see, it is a question of an abortion.  I will not lower myself to pleading or to the glossing over of that which I consider the most despicable of crimes.  I’m giving in to the request of strangers, as I present myself to you, as I shall know how to die.  I invoke death and for that I need nobody.  One gives the appearance of finding pleasure in watering a garden; one puts on wooden shoes; one chooses a watery place, where one draws water every day; one arranges to disappear in the pool of the spring; and people will say it was a ‘misfortune.’ I have foreseen everything.  Sir.  I wish it were the next morning, for I would go with all my heart.  All is prepared, so that it will be so.  But I was told to tell you and so I tell you.  You must decide whether there are to be two murders or one.  Out of my cowardice I have sworn an oath that I will abide by your decision without hesitation.  Decide!”

“This alternative appalled me,” the doctor continued, “the woman’s voice rang pure and harmonious.  Her hand which I held in mine was fine and delicate.  Her free and unequivocal despair bespoke a fine sensibility.  But, an issue that really made me shudder was at hand.  Although in a thousand cases, for example in difficult deliveries when the surgical choice hovers between saving the mother and saving the child, politics or humanity decide the issue accordingly without scruple.”

“Escape abroad,” I said.
“Impossible,” she responded.  “It is unthinkable.”
“Take clever precautions.”
“I can’t; I sleep in the same alcove with the woman whose friendship I betrayed.”
“Is she a relative?”
“I may tell you no more.”

“I would have given my life’s blood,” the doctor continued, “in order to save this woman from suicide or crime, or so that she could be freed from this conflict, without needing me.  I accused myself of barbarity, for I shrank in dread from being an accessory to murder.  It was a frightful struggle.  Then a demon whispered to me that one doesn’t necessarily kill oneself just because one really wants to die; that, by taking away their power to do harm, one forces these compromised people to renounce their vices.”

I inferred luxury from the embroideries moving beneath her fingers and the resources of wealth in the elegant turn of her speech.  One believes one owes the wealthy less sympathy; self-esteem aroused indignation against the thought of being seduced by the compensation of gold, although this matter had not been touched upon up to now.  That was a matter of tact and evidence of respect for my character.  I gave a negative response; the lady removed herself quickly.  The sound of a carriage convinced me that I could never undo the harm I had done.

A fortnight later the newspapers brought the solution to the mystery. The young niece of a Parisian banker, at most eighteen years old, the beloved ward of her aunt who had not let her out of her sight since the death of the girl’s mother, had slipped and drowned in a stream on her guardian’s estate near Villemomble. Her guardian was inconsolable; in his role as uncle, he, the cowardly seducer, let himself be overcome by his sorrow before the world.

One sees that, for want of anything better, suicide becomes the most extreme refuge from the evils of private life.

Among the causes of suicide I very frequently found dismissal from office, refusal of work, and a sudden drop in income, in consequence of which these families could no longer obtain the necessities of life, all the more so since most of them lived from hand to mouth.

At the time when one reduced the royal guards, a good man was fired, without ceremony, like all the rest. His age and his lack of patronage precluded his transfer back to the army; his ignorance closed industry to him.  He sought to enter the civil service but competitors, numerous here as everywhere, blocked his way.  He fell into heavy sorrow and killed himself.  In his pocket one found a letter and disclosures of his circumstances.  His wife was a poor seamstress; their two daughters, ages 16 and 18, worked with her.  Tarnau, our suicide, wrote in the papers he left behind “that, since he could no longer be useful to his family and was forced to live as a burden to his wife and children, he saw it as his duty to take his life and free them from this added burden.  He recommended his children to the Duchess of Angoulême.15  He hoped that the goodness of this princess would take pity on so much misery.”  I drafted a report for the police prefect Angles and, after the necessary formalities, the Duchess provided 600 francs for the unfortunate family. Sad help, without doubt, after such a loss!  But, how should one family aid all the unfortunates since, when all is said and done, all France as it currently is, could not nourish them.  The charity of the rich would not suffice even if our whole nation were religious, which it is far from being. Suicide reduces the most violent share of the difficulty, the scaffold the rest. Only by completely recasting our entire system of agriculture and industry can sources of income and true wealth be anticipated.  It is easy to proclaim constitutions on parchment guaranteeing every citizen’s right to education, to work, and, above all, to a minimum subsistence-level existence.  But it is not enough to put these magnanimous wishes on paper; there remains the essential task of bringing these liberal ideas to fruition through material and intelligent social institutions.

The ancient world of paganism brought splendid creations to this earth; will modern freedom be left behind by her rivals?  Who will join together these grandiose elements of power?

Thus far Peuchet.

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from The Anatomy of Suicide: Can Suicide be Prevented by Legislative Enactments?


The ninth son in a family that had lost its American property in the War of Independence and returned to England, the physician Forbes Winslow was born in Pentonville, London. He was educated at University College, London and the Middlesex Hospital. In 1835, he joined the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and subsequently received his M.D. from Aberdeen in 1849. He supported his own education through writing: he was a reporter for the Times and also wrote medical manuals for students. His work Physic and Physicians (1842) was a two-volume collection of anecdotes about doctors. Winslow’s rise to prominence as an expert on cases of insanity was furthered by his writings, The Anatomy of Suicide (1840), The Plea of Insanity in Criminal Cases (1843), and The Incubation of Insanity (1845).

In 1847, Winslow founded two private insane asylums in Hammersmith, where he experimented with humane treatment of mental illnesses. Winslow continued to write about insanity; he founded the Quarterly Journal of Psychological Medicine in 1848 and wrote many papers for legal and medical instruction. He was instrumental in gaining acceptance for the plea of insanity in criminal cases, including cases of suicide (felo de se). He died in Brighton in 1874.

In these excerpts from The Anatomy of Suicide, Winslow, though he sees suicide as a crime against God and man, insists that laws punishing suicide (which were still in effect in England at the time) were both unjust, since they punished the family rather than the alleged offender, and ineffective, since they did not serve as a deterrent to suicide. He is particularly interested in the way in which a kind of reasoning about suicide, a sort of obsessive perseveration with thoughts of suicide, can invite the act, particularly if it is believed to be justifiable. The remedy, for Winslow, is Christian moral education.

Forbes Winslow, The Anatomy of Suicide, Ch. 16, “Can Suicide Be Prevented by Legislative Enactments?—Influence of Moral Instruction.” London: Henry Renshaw, 1840, pp. 36-44, 334-339.



The only legitimate object for which punishment can be inflicted is the prevention of crime.  “Am I to be hanged for stealing a sheep?” said a criminal at the Old Bailey, addressing the bench.  “No,” replied the judge; “you are not to be hanged for stealing a sheep, but that sheep may not be stolen.”  Every punishment, argues Beccaria, which does not arise from absolute necessity is unjust.  There should be a fixed proportion between crimes and punishments.  Crimes are only to be estimated by the injury done to society; and the end of punishment is, to prevent the criminal from doing further injury, as well as to induce others from committing similar offenses.

The act of suicide ought not to be considered as a crime in the legal definition of the term.  It is not an offense that can be deemed cognizable by the civil magistrate.  It is to be considered a sinful and vicious action.  To punish suicide as a crime is to commit a solecism in legislation.  The unfortunate individual, by the very act of suicide, places himself beyond the vengeance of the law; he has anticipated its operation; he has rendered himself amenable to the highest tribunal—viz., that of his Creator; no penal enactments, however stringent, can affect him.  What is the operation of the law under these circumstances?  A verdict of felo-de-se is returned, and the innocent relations of the suicide are disgraced and branded with infamy, and that too on evidence of an ex-parte nature.  It is unjust, inhuman, unnatural, and unchristian, that the law should punish the innocent family of the man who, in a moment of frenzy, terminates his own miserable existence.  It was clearly established, that before the alteration in the law respecting suicide, the fear of being buried in a cross-road, and having a stake driven through the body, had no beneficial effect in decreasing the number of suicides; and the verdict of felo-de-se, now occasionally returned, is productive of no advantage whatever, and only injures the surviving relatives.

When a man contemplates an outrage of the law, the fear of the punishment awarded for the offence may deter him from its commission; but the unhappy person whose desperate circumstances impel him to sacrifice his own life can be influenced by no such fear.  His whole mind is absorbed in the consideration of his own miseries, and he even cuts asunder those ties that ought to bind him closely and tenderly to the world he is about to leave.  If an affectionate wife and endearing family have not influence in deterring a man from suicide, is it reasonable to suppose that he will be influenced by penal laws?

If the view which has been taken in this work of the cause of suicide be a correct one, no stronger argument can be urged for the impropriety of bringing the strong arm of the law to bear upon those who court a voluntary death.  In the majority of cases, it will be found that some heavy calamity has fastened itself upon the mind, and the spirits have been extremely depressed.  The individual loses all pleasure in society; hope vanishes, and despair renders life intolerable, and death an apparent relief.  The evidence which is generally submitted to a coroner’s jury is of necessity imperfect; and although the suicide may, to all appearance, be in possession of his right reason, and have exhibited at the moment of killing himself the greatest calmness, coolness, and self-possession, this would not justify the coroner or jury in concluding that derangement of mind was not present.

If the mind be overpowered by “grief, sickness, infirmity, or other accident,” as Sir Mathew Hale expresses it, the law presumes the existence of lunacy.  Any passion that powerfully exercises the mind, and prevents the reasoning faculty from performing its duty, causes temporary derangement.  It is not necessary in order to establish the presence of insanity to prove the person to be labouring under a delusion of intellect—a false creation of the mind.  A man may allow his imagination to dwell upon an idea until it acquires an unhealthy ascendancy over the intellect, and in this way a person may commit suicide from an habitual belief in the justifiableness of the act.  If a man, by a distorted process of reasoning, argues himself into a conviction of the propriety of adopting a particular course of conduct, without any reference to the necessary result of that train of thought, it is certainly no evidence of his being in possession of a sound mind.  A person may reason himself into a belief that murder, under certain circumstances not authorized by the law, is perfectly just and proper.  The circumstance of his allowing his mind to reason on the subject is a prima facie case against his sanity; at least it demonstrates a great weakness of the moral constitution.  A man’s morale must be in an imperfect state of development who reasons himself into the conviction that self-murder is under any circumstances justifiable.

We dwell at some length on this subject, because we feel assured that juries do not pay sufficient attention to the influence of passion in overclouding the understanding.  If the notion that in every case of suicide the intellectual or moral faculties are perverted, be generally received, it will at once do away with the verdict of felo-de-se.  Should the jury entertain a doubt as to the presence of derangement, (and such cases may present themselves,) it is their duty, in accordance with the well-known principle of British jurisprudence, to give the person the benefit of that doubt; and thus a verdict of lunacy may be conscientiously returned in every case of this description.

Having, we think, clearly established that no penal law can act beneficially in preventing self-destruction,—first, because it would punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty; and, secondly, that, owing to insanity being present in every instance, the person determined on suicide is indifferent as to the consequences of his action, —it becomes our province to consider what are the legitimate means of staying the progress of an offence that undermines the foundation of society and social happiness.

In the prevention of suicide, too much stress cannot be laid on the importance of adopting a well-regulated, enlarged, and philosophic system of education, by which all the moral as well as the intellectual faculties will be expanded and disciplined.  The education of the intellect without any reference to the moral feelings is a species of instruction calculated to do an immense amount of injury.  The tuition that addresses itself exclusively to the perceptive and reflective faculties is not the kind of education that will elevate the moral character of a people.  Religion must be made the basis of all secular knowledge.  We must be led to believe that the education which fits the possessor for another world is vastly superior to that which has relation only to the concerns of this life.  We are no opponents to the diffusion of knowledge; but we are to that description of information which has only reference “to the life that is, and not to that which is to be.”  Such a system of instruction is of necessity defective, because it is partial in its operation.  Teach a man his duty to God, as well as his obligations to his fellow-men; lead him to believe that his life is not his own; that disappointment and misery is the penalty of Adam’s transgression, and one from which there is no hope of escaping; and, above all, inculcate a resignation to the decrees of Divine Providence.  When life becomes a burden, when the mind is sinking under the weight of accumulated misfortunes, and no gleam of hope penetrates through the vista of futurity to gladden the heart, the intellect says, “Commit suicide, and escape from a world of wretchedness and woe;” the moral principle says, “Live; it is your duty to bear with resignation the afflictions that overwhelm you; let the moral influence of your example be reflected in the characters of those by whom you are surrounded.”

If we are justified in maintaining that the majority of the cases of suicide result from a vitiated condition of the moral principle, then it is certainly a legitimate mode of preventing the commission of the offence to elevate the character of man as a moral being.  It is no legitimate argument against this position to maintain that insanity in all its phases marches side by side with civilization and refinement; but it must not be forgotten that a people may be refined and civilized, using these terms in their ordinary signification, who have not a just conception of their duties as members of a Christian community.  Let the education of the heart go side by side with the education of the head; inculcate the ennobling thought, that we live not for ourselves, but for others; that it is an evidence of true Christian courage to face bravely the ills of life, to bear with impunity “the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, and the proud man’s contumely;” and we disseminate principles which will give expansion to those faculties that alone can fortify the mind against the commission of a crime alike repugnant to all human and Divine laws.

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Filed under Europe, Psychiatry, Selections, The Modern Era, Winslow, Forbes


from Autobiography
from Deaths of Casimir Perier and    Georges Cuvier
from Penal Code for India
from Diary, March 8, 1854
from On Liberty


The British economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, London. His father, James Mill, was a philosopher who had strong ties to Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, and was himself a strict proponent of the utilitarian philosophy. According to his belief that the mind is a blank sheet at birth, upon which anything may be recorded, James Mill brought up his son with a strict, rigorous, and intricate education beginning with Greek at the age of three. The son was a brilliant student with extensive interests in French literature, social conditions, and economic and political theory, but he abandoned his early intention to enter law and instead took a series of positions with his father at the East India Company. By the age of 20, he was known as a foremost proponent of Utilitarianism. After his father’s death, he served from 1836–1856 in charge of relations with native states in India, and retired with a pension when the East India Company was dissolved in 1858. He was a campaigner for women’s suffrage. A member of Parliament from 1865–1868, he was, famously, the first person in its history to call for women to be given the right to vote. His longtime companion and literary collaborator, Mrs. Harriet Taylor, became his wife in 1851; Mill credits her with extensive influence, indeed virtual co-authorship, in much of his writing, especially their “joint production” On Liberty (1859). Mill’s works also include Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859), Utilitarianism (appeared 1861 in Fraser’s Magazine, and as a book in 1863), The Subjection of Women (1869), and Autobiography, composed in the 1850’s, revised in the 1860’s, and published in the year of his death, 1873.

It is remarkable that Mill’s work contains no discussion of the ethical issues in suicide. Of all philosophers concerned with moral issues, Mill might seem to be the one for whom this issue would prove the greatest challenge. On the one hand, Mill’s famous argument in On Liberty suggests he might take a permissive position, perhaps even stronger than that of Hume [q.v.]: Mill argues that persons whose choices are made in informed, uncoerced, and unimpaired ways ought not to be interfered with; this is Mill’s view against the form of paternalism that seeks to impose one party’s values upon another. At the same time, however, there are other elements in On Liberty that suggest he might not think choices of suicide permissible after all—particularly his argument that, even if the choice is a freely made one, one ought not sell oneself into slavery, since one thus loses the liberty that is to be protected; “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free.” Mill does not say whether he would apply this principle to ending one’s own life—and in particular, whether suicide would be wrong because it limits freedom, or permissible because it initiates death, in which one is nonexistent, neither free nor unfree. It is implausible then to suppose that Mill was unfamiliar with the issue; a vigorous debate had raged in England from Donne [q.v.] to Hume [q.v.] and later, and Mill would have been familiar with the Stoic authors [q.v., esp. under Chrysippus, Seneca] as well. He was personally acquainted with the issue of suicide, given the suicides of his close friend Eyton Tooke in 1830 and his brother George Grote Mill, who was in the late stages of tuberculosis, in 1853.

Mill makes a passing reference to suicide in Utilitarianism. When considering objections to the theory he is defending, he remarks “. . . even in that case, something might still be said for the utilitarian theory; since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness; and if the former aim be chimerical, there will be all the greater scope and more imperative need for the latter, so long at least as mankind think fit to live, and do not take refuge in the simultaneous act of suicide recommended under certain conditions by Novalis [q.v.].” However, he does not discuss the ethics of suicide directly in any text.

The selections provided here are thus negative cases permitting only indirect inferences about Mill’s views. The first is an account of Mill’s experience with severe depression during the years 1826–27. He remarks that he seemed to have nothing left to live for, that pleasures are insufficient to make life desirable, and that he frequently asked himself if he could, or if he was bound to go on living; such depression is often associated with suicide. In the second selection, Mill is writing of the death of Casimir Perier, the 11th prime minister of France, who had restored civic order and reestablished France’s credit in Europe; Perier died in 1832 at the age of 54 from a fever contracted when he visited hospitals during an outbreak of cholera in Paris. The third selection is from Mill’s writings on India. He was interested in the development and defense of the proposed penal code for India, which in effect would establish British law for Indian citizens when it was enacted in 1860. Mill reproduces some of this text in his essay Penal Code for India (1838). The selection provided here distinguishes between the more severe penalties to be imposed on persons who aid or abet suicide in incompetent individuals (e.g., children, the insane, the intoxicated) and the less severe penalties for those who aid the suicide of a competent person. This passage may seem to correspond with his views about paternalism. Mill’s brief diary entry for March 8, 1854, hints obliquely at the issue of rationality in suicide.

Finally, the excerpts from On Liberty exhibit vividly the tension in his thought that would come to the fore if he had addressed the topic of suicide directly. It is extraordinary that Mill did not do so, given the centrality of the challenge this issue would constitute for his thinking about autonomy and paternalism. One might expect him to endorse a “right to die” under conditions such as maturity, rational capacity, and attention to one’s obligations to others; but at the same time, the depth of his personal experiences and his sensitivity to the many impairments of rationality might suggest he would hold that choices of suicide could not be rational or ought not to be respected. Nor does he address the permissibility of suicide prevention in a person who is competent and uncoerced. In ­chapter 5, “Applications,” he does hold it permissible for the state to restrict the sale of poisons by means of antecedent precautions that will ward off crimes, including murder, but does not address whether it would be permissible for the state to try to prevent what was then, legally, the crime of self-murder. Elijah Millgram suggests an explanation: given the ferocity of the debate over this issue at the time, Mill was well aware that he would only alienate listeners by taking one side or the other and thus would detract from the potential audience for his other, more central views.

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, chapter 5, “A Crisis in My Mental History,” London: Oxford University Press, 1949, pp. 112-127, 142-44, available online at “Deaths of Casimir Perier and Georges Cuvier,” from Examiner, May 20, 1832, in “Newspaper Writings,”in Collected Works of John Stuart Milled. J. M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963–91), vol. 23, pp. 329-330. “Penal Code for India,” Calcutta: Bengal Military Orphan Press, 1837; London and Westminster Review, vol. VII, XXIX (August 1838), pp. 393-409 (not enacted until 1860), also in “Writings on India,” in Collected Works, vol. 30, p. 23-27. “Diary,” March 8, 1854, from “Journals and Debating Speeches,” Part II, in Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 660. On Liberty (1859), Introduction and chapter 5, Applications, in Collected Works and online at

Quotation from Mill in introductory notes from Mill’s Utilitarianism, eds. James M. Smith and Ernest Sosa. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, p. 41. Comment on Mill in introductory notes, Elijah Millgram, personal communication.



For some years after this I wrote very little, and nothing regularly, for publication: and great were the advantages which I derived from the intermission. It was of no common importance to me, at this period, to be able to digest and mature my thoughts for my own mind only, without any immediate call for giving them out in print. Had I gone on writing, it would have much disturbed the important transformation in my opinions and character, which took place during those years. The origin of this transformation, or at least the process by which I was prepared for it, can only be explained by turning some distance back.

From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object. The personal sympathies I wished for were those of fellow labourers in this enterprise. I endeavoured to pick up as many flowers as I could by the way; but as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance was placed on this; and I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed, through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment. This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence. But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first “conviction of sin.” In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

At first I hoped that the cloud would pass away of itself; but it did not. A night’s sleep, the sovereign remedy for the smaller vexations of life, had no effect on it. I awoke to a renewed consciousness of the woful fact. I carried it with me into all companies, into all occupations. Hardly anything had power to cause me even a few minutes oblivion of it. For some months the cloud seemed to grow thicker and thicker. The lines in Coleridge’s “Dejection”—I was not then acquainted with them—exactly describe my case:

           “A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear,

            A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief,

            Which finds no natural outlet or relief

            In word, or sigh, or tear.”

In vain I sought relief from my favourite books; those memorials of past nobleness and greatness from which I had always hitherto drawn strength and animation. I read them now without feeling, or with the accustomed feeling minus all its charm; and I became persuaded, that my love of mankind, and of excellence for its own sake, had worn itself out. I sought no comfort by speaking to others of what I felt. If I had loved any one sufficiently to make confiding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was. I felt, too, that mine was not an interesting, or in any way respectable distress. There was nothing in it to attract sympathy. Advice, if I had known where to seek it, would have been most precious. The words of Macbeth to the physician often occurred to my thoughts. But there was no one on whom I could build the faintest hope of such assistance. My father, to whom it would have been natural to me to have recourse in any practical difficulties, was the last person to whom, in such a case as this, I looked for help. Everything convinced me that he had no knowledge of any such mental state as I was suffering from, and that even if he could be made to understand it, he was not the physician who could heal it. My education, which was wholly his work, had been conducted without any regard to the possibility of its ending in this result; and I saw no use in giving him the pain of thinking that his plans had failed, when the failure was probably irremediable, and, at all events, beyond the power of his remedies. Of other friends, I had at that time none to whom I had any hope of making my condition intelligible. It was however abundantly intelligible to myself; and the more I dwelt upon it, the more hopeless it appeared.

My course of study had led me to believe, that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association; that we love one thing, and hate another, take pleasure in one sort of action or contemplation, and pain in another sort, through the clinging of pleasurable or painful ideas to those things, from the effect of education or of experience. As a corollary from this, I had always heard it maintained by my father, and was myself convinced, that the object of education should be to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and of pain with all things hurtful to it. This doctrine appeared inexpugnable; but it now seemed to me, on retrospect, that my teachers had occupied themselves but superficially with the means of forming and keeping up these salutary associations. They seemed to have trusted altogether to the old familiar instruments, praise and blame, reward and punishment. Now, I did not doubt that by these means, begun early, and applied unremittingly, intense associations of pain and pleasure, especially of pain, might be created, and might produce desires and aversions capable of lasting undiminished to the end of life. But there must always be something artificial and casual in associations thus produced. The pains and pleasures thus forcibly associated with things, are not connected with them by any natural tie; and it is therefore, I thought, essential to the durability of these associations, that they should have become so intense and inveterate as to be practically indissoluble, before the habitual exercise of the power of analysis had commenced. For I now saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity—that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives. The very excellence of analysis (I argued) is that it tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice; that it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together: and no associations whatever could ultimately resist this dissolving force, were it not that we owe to analysis our clearest knowledge of the permanent sequences in nature; the real connexions between Things, not dependent on our will and feelings; natural laws, by virtue of which, in many cases, one thing is inseparable from another in fact; which laws, in proportion as they are clearly perceived and imaginatively realized, cause our ideas of things which are always joined together in Nature, to cohere more and more closely in our thoughts. Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling. They are therefore (I thought) favourable to prudence and clear-sightedness, but a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and, above all, fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures, which are the effects of association, that is, according to the theory I held, all except the purely physical and organic; of the entire insufficiency of which to make life desirable, no one had a stronger conviction than I had. These were the laws of human nature, by which, as it seemed to me, I had been brought to my present state. All those to whom I looked up, were of opinion that the pleasure of sympathy with human beings, and the feelings which made the good of others, and especially of mankind on a large scale, the object of existence, were the greatest and surest sources of happiness. Of the truth of this I was convinced, but to know that a feeling would make me happy if I had it, did not give me the feeling. My education, I thought, had failed to create these feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind. I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else. The fountains of vanity and ambition seemed to have dried up within me, as completely as those of benevolence. I had had (as I reflected) some gratification of vanity at too early an age: I had obtained some distinction, and felt myself of some importance, before the desire of distinction and of importance had grown into a passion: and little as it was which I had attained, yet having been attained too early, like all pleasures enjoyed too soon, it had made me blasé and indifferent to the pursuit. Thus neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me. And there seemed no power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew, and create in a mind now irretrievably analytic, fresh associations of pleasure with any of the objects of human desire.

These were the thoughts which mingled with the dry heavy dejection of the melancholy winter of 1826–7. During this time I was not incapable of my usual occupations. I went on with them mechanically, by the mere force of habit. I had been so drilled in a certain sort of mental exercise, that I could still carry it on when all the spirit had gone out of it. I even composed and spoke several speeches at the debating society, how, or with what degree of success, I know not. Of four years continual speaking at that society, this is the only year of which I remember next to nothing. Two lines of Coleridge, in whom alone of all writers I have found a true description of what I felt, were often in my thoughts, not at this time (for I had never read them), but in a later period of the same mental malady:

           “Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,

            And hope without an object cannot live.”

In all probability my case was by no means so peculiar as I fancied it, and I doubt not that many others have passed through a similar state; but the idiosyncrasies of my education had given to the general phenomenon a special character, which made it seem the natural effect of causes that it was hardly possible for time to remove. I frequently asked myself, if I could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner. I generally answered to myself, that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year. When, however, not more than half that duration of time had elapsed, a small ray of light broke in upon my gloom. I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s “Memoires,” and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them—would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my been grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone. I had still, it seemed, some of the material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness, are made. Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good. Thus the cloud gradually drew off, and I again enjoyed life: and though I had several relapses, some of which lasted many months, I never again was as miserable as I had been.

The experiences of this period had two very marked effects on my opinions and character. In the first place, they led me to adopt a theory of life, very unlike that on which I had before acted, and having much in common with what at that time I certainly had never heard of, the anti-self-consciousness theory of Carlyle. I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

The other important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action.

I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided. I did not, for an instant, lose sight of, or under-value, that part of the truth which I had seen before; I never turned recreant to intellectual culture, or ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement. But I thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it. The maintenance of a due balance among the faculties, now seemed to me of primary importance. The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed. And my thoughts and inclinations turned in an increasing degree towards whatever seemed capable of being instrumental to that object.

I now began to find meaning in the things which I had read or heard about the importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture. But it was some time longer before I began to know this by personal experience. The only one of the imaginative arts in which I had from childhood taken great pleasure, was music; the best effect of which (and in this it surpasses perhaps every other art) consists in exciting enthusiasm; in winding up to a high pitch those feelings of an elevated kind which are already in the character, but to which this excitement gives a glow and a fervour, which, though transitory at its utmost height, is precious for sustaining them at other times. This effect of music I had often experienced; but like all my pleasurable susceptibilities it was suspended during the gloomy period. I had sought relief again and again from this quarter, but found none. After the tide had turned, and I was in process of recovery, I had been helped forward by music, but in a much less elevated manner. I at this time first became acquainted with Weber’s Oberon, and the extreme pleasure which I drew from its delicious melodies did me good, by showing me a source of pleasure to which I was as susceptible as ever. The good, however, was much impaired by the thought, that the pleasure of music (as is quite true of such pleasure as this was, that of mere tune) fades with familiarity, and requires either to be revived by intermittence, or fed by continual novelty. And it is very characteristic both of my then state, and of the general tone of my mind at this period of my life, that I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty. This source of anxiety may, perhaps, be thought to resemble that of the philosophers of Laputa, who feared lest the sun should be burnt out. It was, however, connected with the best feature in my character, and the only good point to be found in my very unromantic and in no way honourable distress. For though my dejection, honestly looked at, could not be called other than egotistical, produced by the ruin, as I thought, of my fabric of happiness, yet the destiny of mankind in general was ever in my thoughts, and could not be separated from my own. I felt that the flaw in my life, must be a flaw in life itself; that the question was, whether, if the reformers of society and government could succeed in their objects, and every person in the community were free and in a state of physical comfort, the pleasures of life, being no longer kept up by struggle and privation, would cease to be pleasures. And I felt that unless I could see my way to some better hope than this for human happiness in general, my dejection must continue; but that if I could see such an outlet, I should then look on the world with pleasure; content as far as I was myself concerned, with any fair share of the general lot.

This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life. I took up the collection of his poems from curiosity, with no expectation of mental relief from it, though I had before resorted to poetry with that hope. In the worst period of my depression, I had read through the whole of Byron (then new to me), to try whether a poet, whose peculiar department was supposed to be that of the intenser feelings, could rouse any feeling in me. As might be expected, I got no good from this reading, but the reverse. The poet’s state of mind was too like my own. His was the lament of a man who had worn out all pleasures, and who seemed to think that life, to all who possess the good things of it, must necessarily be the vapid, uninteresting thing which I found it. His Harold and Manfred had the same burthen on them which I had; and I was not in a frame of mind to derive any comfort from the vehement sensual passion of his Giaours, or the sullenness of his Laras. But while Byron was exactly what did not suit my condition, Wordsworth was exactly what did. I had looked into the Excursion two or three years before, and found little in it; and I should probably have found as little, had I read it at this time. But the miscellaneous poems, in the two-volume edition of 1815 (to which little of value was added in the latter part of the author’s life), proved to be the precise thing for my mental wants at that particular juncture.

In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth’s, poetry. the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle of imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence. There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did. I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis. At the conclusion of the Poems came the famous Ode, falsely called Platonic, “Intimations of Immortality:” in which, along with more than his usual sweetness of melody and rhythm, and along with the two passages of grand imagery but bad philosophy so often quoted, I found that he too had had similar experience to mine; that he also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in the way in which he was now teaching me to find it. The result was that I gradually, but completely, emerged from my habitual depression, and was never again subject to it. I long continued to value Wordsworth less according to his intrinsic merits, than by the measure of what he had done for me. Compared with the greatest poets, he may be said to be the poet of unpoetical natures, possessed of quiet and contemplative tastes. But unpoetical natures are precisely those which require poetic cultivation. This cultivation Wordsworth is much more fitted to give, than poets who are intrinsically far more poets than he.

It so fell out that the merits of Wordsworth were the occasion of my first public declaration of my new way of thinking, and separation from those of my habitual companions who had not undergone a similar change…

…In giving an account of this period of my life, I have only specified such of my new impressions as appeared to me, both at the time and since, to be a kind of turning points, marking a definite progress in my mode of thought. But these few selected points give a very insufficient idea of the quantity of thinking which I carried on respecting a host of subjects during these years of transition. Much of this, it is true, consisted in rediscovering things known to all the world, which I had previously disbelieved, or disregarded. But the rediscovery was to me a discovery, giving me plenary possession of the truths, not as traditional platitudes, but fresh from their source; and it seldom failed to place them in some new light, by which they were reconciled with, and seemed to confirm while they modified, the truths less generally known which lay in my early opinions, and in no essential part of which I at any time wavered. All my new thinking only laid the foundation of these more deeply and strongly while it often removed misapprehension and confusion of ideas which had perverted their effect. For example, during the later returns of my dejection, the doctrine of what is called Philosophical Necessity weighed on my existence like an incubus. I felt as if I was scientifically proved to be the helpless slave of antecedent circumstances; as if my character and that of all others had been formed for us by agencies beyond our control, and was wholly out of our own power. I often said to myself, what a relief it would be if I could disbelieve the doctrine of the formation of character by circumstances; and remembering the wish of Fox respecting the doctrine of resistance to governments, that it might never be forgotten by kings, nor remembered by subjects, I said that it would be a blessing if the doctrine of necessity could be believed by all quoad the characters of others, and disbelieved in regard to their own. I pondered painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it. I perceived, that the word Necessity, as a name for the doctrine of Cause and Effect applied to human action, carried with it a misleading association; and that this association was the operative force in the depressing and paralysing influence which I had experienced: I saw that though our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of free-will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing. All this was entirely consistent with the doctrine of circumstances, or rather, was that doctrine itself, properly understood. From that time I drew in my own mind, a clear distinction between the doctrine of circumstances, and Fatalism; discarding altogether the misleading word Necessity. The theory, which I now for the first time rightly apprehended, ceased altogether to be discouraging, and besides the relief to my spirits, I no longer suffered under the burthen, so heavy to one who aims at being a reformer in opinions, of thinking one doctrine true, and the contrary doctrine morally beneficial. The train of thought which had extricated me from this dilemma, seemed to me, in after years, fitted to render a similar service to others; and it now forms the chapter on Liberty and Necessity in the concluding Book of my System of Logic…


 …For it is ill dying a martyr to a falling cause, when that cause is also one which ought to fall. Cranmer and Latimer and Ridley will live for ever; but is it for his martyrdom that we remember Sir Thomas More? Devotion to a long line of kings, or to a constitution which has stood the shock of ages, though now rotten, and worm-eaten, and harbouring unclean vermin, we can understand. But to die for a temporary compromise, a patch-work of yesterday, a thing constructed on no principle, to which no human being ever carried hypocrisy so far as to pretend to have any attachment, to which nobody affects to look for any guidance, but only for keeping him from being robbed or murdered;—to be martyred for worshiping at an empty shrine—without an oracle, without a God, without even an idol; no Gothic cathedral or Grecian temple, but a wooden shed, run up in a hurry, because any shelter was better than the open sky, and which men resort to, not because it is good, but because they know not whither to seek for any other—is a death little worthy of an apotheosis; no dying for one’s country, but a common suicide….



294. Whoever does any act, or omits what he is legally bound to do, with the intention of thereby causing, or with the knowledge that he is likely thereby to cause, the death of any person, and does by such act or omission cause the death of any person, is said to commit the offence of “Voluntary culpable homicide.”

(a). A lays sticks and turf over a pit, with the intention of thereby causing death, or with the knowledge that death is likely to be thereby caused. Z, believing the ground to be firm, treads on it, falls in, and is killed. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(b). A, with the intention or knowledge aforesaid, relates agitating tidings to Z, who is in a critical stage of a dangerous illness. Z dies in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(c). A, with the intention or knowledge aforesaid, gives Z his choice whether Z will kill himself, or suffer lingering torture. Z kills himself in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(d). A, with the intention or knowledge aforesaid, falsely deposes before a court of justice that he saw Z commit a capital crime. Z is convicted and executed in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(e). A is hired to guide Z through a jungle. In the midst of the jungle, A, no circumstance having occurred to release him from his legal obligation to guide Z through the jungle, with such intention or knowledge as aforesaid, leaves Z. Z dies in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(f). A being legally bound to furnish food to Z, who is the mother of a sucking child, omits to furnish her with food, intending or knowing it to be likely that Z’s death may be the consequence of the omission. Z survives, but the child is starved to death in consequence of the failure of milk, which is caused by A’s omission. Here, even if A did not know of the existence of the child, he has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(g). A keeps Z in wrongful confinement, and is, therefore, legally bound (see clause 338) to furnish Z with what he knows to be necessary to prevent Z from being in danger of death. A knowing that Z is likely to die if medical advice be not procured, illegally omits to procure such advice. Z dies in consequence. A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.

(h). A knows Z to be behind a bush. B does not know it. A, intending to cause, or knowing himself to be likely to cause, Z’s death, induces B to fire at the bush. B fires and kills Z. Here, B may be guilty of no offence, or if his firing was, under the circumstances, a rash act, he may be guilty of the offence defined in clause 304. But A has committed the offence of voluntary culpable homicide.*

295. Voluntary culpable homicide is “murder,” unless it be of one of the three mitigated descriptions hereinafter enumerated; that is to say,

First, Manslaughter;

Secondly, Voluntary culpable homicide by consent;

Thirdly, Voluntary culpable homicide in defence.

296. If a person, by doing anything which he intends or knows to be likely to cause death, commits voluntary culpable homicide on a person whose death he neither intends nor knows himself to be likely to cause, the voluntary culpable homicide committed by the offender is of the same description of which it would have been if he had caused the death which he intended or knew himself to be likely to cause.

297. Voluntary culpable homicide is “manslaughter,” when it is committed on grave and sudden provocation, by causing the death of the person who gave that provocation.

Explanation.—Provocation is designated as “grave” when it is such as would be likely to move a person of ordinary temper to violent passion, and is not given by anything done in obedience to the law, or by anything authorised by the law of civil or criminal procedure, or by anything done by a public servant* in the exercise of the lawful powers of such public servant, or by anything done by any person in the exercise of the right of private defence, against the offender.

(a). A, under the influence of passion excited by a provocation given by Z, intentionally kills Y, Z’s child. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(b). A is lawfully arrested by Z, a bailiff. A is excited to sudden and violent passion by the arrest, and voluntarily kills Z. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(c). A appears as a witness before Z, a magistrate. Z says that he does not believe a word of A’s deposition, and that A has perjured himself. A is moved to sudden passion by these words, and kills Z. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(d). A attempts to pull Z’s nose. Z, in the exercise of the right of private defence, strikes A. A is moved to sudden and violent passion by the blow, and kills Z. This is not manslaughter, but murder.

(e). Z strikes B. B is by this provocation excited to violent rage. A, a bystander, intending to take advantage of B’s rage in order to cause Z’s death, puts a knife into B’s hand. B kills Z with the knife. Here, B may have committed only manslaughter, but A has committed murder.

(f). Y gives grave and sudden provocation to A. A, on this provocation, fires a pistol at Y, neither intending nor knowing himself to be likely to kill Z, who is near him but out of sight. A kills Z. Here, A has committed manslaughter.

298. Voluntary culpable homicide is “voluntary culpable homicide by consent,” when the person whose death is caused, being above twelve years of age, suffers death, or takes the risk of death, by his own choice:


First, That the offender does not induce the person whose death is caused to make that choice, by directly or indirectly putting that person in fear of any injury;*

Secondly, That the person whose death has been caused is not, from youth, mental imbecility, derangement, intoxication, or passion, unable to understand the nature and consequences of his choice;

Thirdly, That the offender does not know that the person whose death is caused was induced to make the choice by any deception, or concealment;

Fourthly, That the offender does not conceal from the person whose death is caused anything which the offender knew to be likely to cause that person to change his mind.

Explanation.—Voluntary culpable homicide committed by inducing a person voluntarily to put himself to death is voluntary culpable homicide by consent, except when it is murder.

(a). Z, a Hindoo widow, consents to be burned with the corpse of her husband. A kindles the pile. Here A has committed voluntary culpable homicide by consent.

(b). A, by instigation, voluntarily causes Z, a child under twelve years of age, to commit suicide. Here, on account of Z’s youth, the offence cannot be voluntary culpable homicide by consent. A has therefore committed murder.

(c). A, by deceiving Z into a belief that Z’s family have perished at sea, voluntarily causes Z to commit suicide. Here, on account of the deception practised by A, the offence cannot be voluntary culpable homicide by consent. A has therefore committed murder.

299. Voluntary culpable homicide is “voluntary culpable homicide in defence,” when it is committed by causing death under such circumstances that such causing of death would be no offence if the right of private defence extended to the voluntary causing of death in cases of assault not falling under any of the descriptions enumerated in clause 76, or in cases of theft, mischief, or criminal trespass, not falling under any of the descriptions enumerated in clause 79.

(a). Z attempts to horsewhip A, not in such a manner as to cause grievous hurt to A. A draws out a pistol. Z persists in the assault. A, believing in good faith that he can by no other means prevent himself from being horsewhipped, shoots Z dead. A has committed voluntary culpable homicide in defence.

(b). Z commits simple theft on A’s horse, and rides away with it. Here A has a right of private defence which lasts till either Z can effect his retreat with the property, or till A can recover his horse, but which does not extend to the infliction of death, inasmuch as A is in no danger of death or hurt. A pursues Z, and, not being able to overtake him, shoots him dead. A has committed voluntary culpable homicide in defence.

(c). Z commits an assault, not of a dangerous description, on A. A, knowing that he can defend himself from the assault without killing Z, kills Z. Here, as A’s act would be an offence even if the right of private defence in cases of assault of the descriptions not enumerated in clause 76 extended to the voluntary infliction of death, A has committed voluntary culpable homicide, which is not voluntary culpable homicide in defence, but which, according to the circumstances, will be manslaughter or murder.

300. Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death, or transportation for life, or rigorous imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.*

301. Whoever commits manslaughter shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which may extend to fourteen years, or fine, or both.

302. Whoever commits voluntary culpable homicide by consent shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which may extend to fourteen years and must not be less than two years, and shall also be liable to fine.

303. Whoever commits voluntary culpable homicide in defence shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to fourteen years, or fine, or both.

304. Whoever causes the death of any person by any act or any illegal omission, which act or omission was so rash or negligent as to indicate a want of due regard for human life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or fine, or both.

305. If the act or illegal omission whereby death is caused in the manner described in the last preceding clause, be, apart from the circumstance of its having caused death, an offence other than the offence defined in clause 327, or an attempt to commit an offence, the offender shall be liable to the punishment of the offence so committed or attempted, in addition to the punishment provided by the last preceding clause.

Explanation.—In cases in which the doing of a certain thing and the attempting to do that thing are distinct offences, if the offence defined in the last preceding clause be committed in the attempting to do that thing, the additional punishment to which the offender is liable is the punishment not of attempting to do that thing, but of doing that thing.

A uses force to Z, a woman, intending to ravish her. He does not ravish her, but commits the offence defined in clause 304. Here the term of imprisonment to which A has made himself liable is to be regulated not by the term of imprisonment assigned to the offence of attempting to ravish, but by the term of imprisonment assigned to actual rape, that is to say, A is liable to rigorous imprisonment for a term of not more than sixteen nor less than two years.

306. If any child under twelve years of age, any insane person, any delirious person, any idiot, or any person in a state of intoxication, commits suicide, whoever previously abets by aid* the commission of such suicide shall be punished with death or transportation for life, or rigorous imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

307. If any person commits suicide, whoever previously abets by aid the commission of such suicide shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to fourteen years, and must not be less than two years, and shall also be liable to fine.

308. Whoever does any act, or omits what he is legally bound to do, with such intention or knowledge and under such circumstances that if he by that act or omission caused death, he would be guilty of murder, and carries that act or omission to such a length as at the time of carrying it to that length he contemplates as sufficient to cause death, shall be punished with transportation for life, or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to life, and must not be less than seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.

(a). A, intending to murder Z by means of a spring gun, purchases such a gun. A has not yet committed the offence defined in this clause. A sets the gun loaded in Z’s path, and leaves it there. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

(b). A, intending to murder Z by poison, purchases poison, and mixes the same with food which remains in A’s keeping. A has not yet committed the offence defined in this clause. A places the food on Z’s table, or delivers it to Z’s servants to place it on Z’s table. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

309. Whoever does any act, or omits what he is legally bound to do, with such intention or knowledge and under such circumstances that if he, by that act or omission, caused death, he would be guilty of voluntary culpable homicide, and carries that act or omission to such a length as at the time of carrying it to that length he contemplates as sufficient to cause death, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which may extend to three years, or fine, or both.

(a). A, on grave and sudden provocation, fires a pistol at Z, under such circumstances that if he thereby caused death he would be guilty of manslaughter. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

(b). A lights a pile prepared for a Suttee, under such circumstances that if he thereby caused death he would be guilty of voluntary culpable homicide by consent. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

(c). A pursues a thief, and fires at him, under such circumstances that if he killed the thief he would commit voluntary culpable homicide in defence. A has committed the offence defined in this clause.

310. Whoever belongs or has at any time belonged to any gang of persons associated for the purpose of gaining a livelihood by inveigling and murdering travellers in order to take the property of such travellers, is designated as a “Thug.”

311. Whoever is a Thug shall be punished with transportation for life, or imprisonment of either description for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

DIARY, MARCH 8, 1854

People who lead regular lives are often unable to conceive how it is that men with their eyes open do things which are obviously likely to bring them to ruin, ignominy, and perhaps suicide or the gallows. They account for it by supposing delusion, madness, the blinding influence of passion, etc., etc. They do not consider that the men who do the acts involving this ultimate extreme of failure in life are mostly men who are already in some position only one or two removes short of it.



The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him withany evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimatemode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.

It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorise the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a primâ facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception. In all things which regardthe external relations of the individual, he is de jure amenable to those whose interests are concerned, and if need be, to society as their protector. There are often good reasons for not holding him to the responsibility; but these reasons must arise from the special expediencies of the case: either because it is a kind of case in which he is on the whole likely to act better, when left to his own discretion, than when controlled in any way in which society have it in their power to control him; or because the attempt to exercise control would produce other evils, greater than those which it would prevent. When such reasons as these preclude the enforcement of responsibility, the conscience of the agent himself should step into the vacant judgment seat, and protect those interests of others which have no external protection; judging himself all the more rigidly, because the case does not admit of his being made accountable to the judgment of his fellow-creatures.

But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

Though this doctrine is anything but new, and, to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no doctrine which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice. Society has expended fully as much effort in the attempt (according to its lights) to compel people to conform to its notions of personal, as of social excellence. The ancient commonwealths thought themselves entitled to practise, and the ancient philosophers countenanced, the regulation of every part of private conduct by public authority, on the ground that the State had a deep interest in the whole bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens; a mode of thinking which may have been admissible in small republics surrounded by powerful enemies, in constant peril of being subverted by foreign attack or internal commotion, and to which even a short interval of relaxed energy and self-command might so easily be fatal, that they could not afford to wait for the salutary permanent effects of freedom. In the modern world, the greater size of political communities, and above all, the separation between spiritual and temporal authority (which placed the direction of men’s consciences in other hands than those which controlled their worldly affairs), prevented so great an interference by law in the details of private life; but the engines of moral repression have been wielded more strenuously against divergence from the reigning opinion in self-regarding, than even in social matters; religion, the most powerful of the elements which have entered into the formation of moral feeling, having almost always been governed either by the ambition of a hierarchy, seeking control over every department of human conduct, or by the spirit of Puritanism. And some of those modern reformers who have placed themselves in strongest opposition to the religions of the past, have been noway behind either churches or sects in their assertion of the right of spiritual domination: M. Comte, in particular, whose social system, as unfolded in his Traité de Politique Positive, aims at establishing (though by moral more than by legal appliances) a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers.

Apart from the peculiar tenets of individual thinkers, there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable. The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase.

It will be convenient for the argument, if, instead of at once entering upon the general thesis, we confine ourselves in the first instance to a single branch of it, on which the principle here stated is, if not fully, yet to a certain point, recognised by the current opinions. This one branch is the Liberty of Thought: from which it is impossible to separate the cognate liberty of speaking and of writing. Although these liberties, to some considerable amount, form part of the political morality of all countries which profess religious toleration and free institutions, the grounds, both philosophical and practical, on which they rest, are perhaps not so familiar to the general mind, nor so thoroughly appreciated by many even of the leaders of opinion, as might have been expected. Those grounds, when rightly understood, are of much wider application than to only one division of the subject, and a thorough consideration of this part of the question will be found the best introduction to the remainder. Those to whom nothing which I am about to say will be new, may therefore, I hope, excuse me, if on a subject which for now three centuries has been so often discussed, I venture on one discussion more….


Again, trade is a social act. Whoever undertakes to sell any description of goods to the public, does what affects the interest of other persons, and of society in general; and thus his conduct, in principle, comes within the jurisdiction of society: accordingly, it was once held to be the duty of governments, in all cases which were considered of importance, to fix prices, and regulate the processes of manufacture. But it is now recognised, though not till after a long struggle, that both the cheapness and the good quality of commodities are most effectually provided for by leaving the producers and sellers perfectly free, under the sole check of equalfreedom to the buyers for supplying themselves elsewhere. This is the so-called doctrine of Free Trade, which rests on grounds different from, though equally solid with, the principle of individual liberty asserted in this Essay. Restrictions on trade, or on production for purposes of trade, are indeed restraints; and all restraint, quâ restraint, is an evil: but the restraints in question affect only that part of conduct which society is competent to restrain, and are wrong solely because they do not really produce the results which it is desired to produce by them. As the principle of individual liberty is not involved in the doctrine of Free Trade, so neither is it in most of the questions which arise respecting the limits of that doctrine: as for example, what amount of public control is admissible for the prevention of fraud by adulteration; how far sanitary precautions, or arrangements to protect work-people employed in dangerous occupations, should be enforced on employers. Such questions involve considerations of liberty, only in so far as leaving people to themselves is always better, cæteris paribus, than controlling them: but that they may be legitimately controlled for these ends, is in principle undeniable. On the other hand, there are questions relating to interference with trade, which are essentially questions of liberty; such as the Maine Law, already touched upon; the prohibition of the importation of opium into China; the restriction of the sale of poisons; all cases, in short, where the object of the interference is to make it impossible or difficult to obtain a particular commodity. These interferences are objectionable, not as infringements on the liberty of the producer or seller, but on that of the buyer.

One of these examples, that of the sale of poisons, opens a new question; the proper limits of what may be called the functions of police; how far liberty may legitimately be invaded for the prevention of crime, or of accident. It is one of the undisputed functions of government to take precautions against crime before it has been committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards. The preventive function of government, however, is far more liable to be abused, to the prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function; for there is hardly any part of the legitimate freedom of action of a human being which would not admit of being represented, and fairly too, as increasing the facilities for some form or other of delinquency. Nevertheless, if a public authority, or even a private person, sees any one evidently preparing to commit a crime, they are not bound to look on inactive until the crime is committed, but may interfere to prevent it. If poisons were never bought or used for any purpose except the commission of murder, it would be right to prohibit their manufacture and sale. They may, however, be wanted not only for innocent but for useful purposes, and restrictions cannot be imposed in the one case without operating in the other. Again, it is a proper office of public authority to guard against accidents. If either a public officer or any one else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back, without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river. Nevertheless, when there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk: in this case, therefore (unless he is a child, or delirious, or in some state of excitement or absorption incompatible with the full use of the reflecting faculty), he ought, I conceive, to be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it. Similar considerations, applied to such a question as the sale of poisons, may enable us to decide which among the possible modes of regulation are or are not contrary to principle. Such a precaution, for example, as that of labelling the drug with some word expressive of its dangerous character, may be enforced without violation of liberty: the buyer cannot wish not to know that the thing he possesses has poisonous qualities. But to require in all cases the certificate of a medical practitioner, would make it sometimes impossible, always expensive, to obtain the article for legitimate uses. The only mode apparent to me, in which difficulties may be thrown in the way of crime committed through this means, without any infringement, worth taking into account, upon the liberty of those who desire the poisonous substance for other purposes, consists in providing what, in the apt language of Bentham, is called “preappointed evidence.” This provision is familiar to every one in the case of contracts. It is usual and right that the law, when a contract is entered into, should require as the condition of its enforcing performance, that certain formalities should be observed, such as signatures, attestation of witnesses, and the like, in order that in case of subsequent dispute, there may be evidence to prove that the contract was really entered into, and that there was nothing in the circumstances to render it legally invalid: the effect being, to throw great obstacles in the way of fictitious contracts, or contracts made in circumstances which, if known, would destroy their validity. Precautions of a similar nature might be enforced in the sale of articles adapted to be instruments of crime. The seller, for example, might be required to enter into a register the exact time of the transaction, the name and address of the buyer, the precise quality and quantity sold; to ask the purpose for which it was wanted, and record the answer he received. When there was no medical prescription, the presence of some third person might be required, to bring home the fact to the purchaser, in case there should afterwards be reason to believe that the article had been applied to criminal purposes. Such regulations would in general be no material impediment to obtaining the article, but a very considerable one to making an improper use of it without detection.

The right inherent in society, to ward off crimes against itself by antecedent precautions, suggests the obvious limitations to the maxim, that purely self-regarding misconduct cannot properly be meddled with in the way of prevention or punishment. Drunkenness, for example, in ordinary cases, is not a fit subject for legislative interference; but I should deem it perfectly legitimate that a person, who had once been convicted of any act of violence to others under the influence of drink, should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself; that if he were afterwards found drunk, he should be liable to a penalty, and that if when in that state he committed another offence, the punishment to which he would be liable for that other offence should be increased in severity. The making himself drunk, in a person whom drunkenness excites to do harm to others, is a crime against others. So, again, idleness, except in a person receiving support from the public, or except when it constitutes a breach of contract, cannot without tyranny be made a subject of legal punishment; but if either from idleness or from any other avoidable cause, a man fails to perform his legal duties to others, as for instance to support his children, it is no tyranny to force him to fulfil that obligation, by compulsory labour, if no other means are available.

Again, there are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners and coming thus within the category of offences against others may rightfully be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency; on which it is unnecessary to dwell, the rather as they are only connected indirectly with our subject, the objection to publicity being equally strong in the case of many actions not in themselves condemnable, nor supposed to be so.

There is another question to which an answer must be found, consistent with the principles which have been laid down. In cases of personal conduct supposed to be blamable, but which respect for liberty precludes society from preventing or punishing, because the evil directly resulting falls wholly on the agent; what the agent is free to do, ought other persons to be equally free to counsel or instigate? This question is not free from difficulty. The case of a person who solicits another to do an act, is not strictly a case of self-regarding conduct. To give advice or offer inducements to any one, is a social act, and may therefore, like actions in general which affect others, be supposed amenable to social control. But a little reflection corrects the first impression, by showing that if the case is not strictly within the definition of individual liberty, yet the reasons on which the principle of individual liberty is grounded, are applicable to it. If people must be allowed, in whatever concerns only themselves, to act as seems best to themselves at their own peril, they must equally be free to consult with one another about what is fit to be so done; to exchange opinions, and give and receive suggestions. Whatever it is permitted to do, it must be permitted to advise to do. The question is doubtful, only when the instigator derives a personal benefit from his advice; when he makes it his occupation, for subsistence or pecuniary gain, to promote what society and the state consider to be an evil. Then, indeed, a new element of complication is introduced; namely, the existence of classes of persons with an interest opposed to what is considered as the public weal, and whose mode of living is grounded on the counteraction of it. Ought this to be interfered with, or not? Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling; but should a person be free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling-house? The case is one of those which lie on the exact boundary line between two principles, and it is not at once apparent to which of the two it properly belongs. There are arguments on both sides. On the side of toleration it may be said, that the fact of following anything as an occupation, and living or profiting by the practice of it, cannot make that criminal which would otherwise be admissible; that the act should either be consistently permitted or consistently prohibited; that if the principles which we have hitherto defended are true, society has no business, as society, to decide anything to be wrong which concerns only the individual; that it cannot go beyond dissuasion, and that one person should be as free to persuade, as another to dissuade. In opposition to this it may be contended, that although the public, or the State, are not warranted in authoritatively deciding, for purposes of repression or punishment, that such or such conduct affecting only the interests of the individual is good or bad, they are fully justified in assuming, if they regard it as bad, that its being so or not is at least a disputable question: That, this being supposed, they cannot be acting wrongly in endeavouring to exclude the influence of solicitations which are not disinterested, of instigators who cannot possibly be impartial—who have a direct personal interest on one side, and that side the one which the State believes to be wrong, and who confessedly promote it for personal objects only. There can surely, it may be urged, be nothing lost, no sacrifice of good, by so ordering matters that persons shall make their election, either wisely or foolishly, on their own prompting, as free as possible from the arts of persons who stimulate their inclinations for interested purposes of their own. Thus (it may be said) though the statutes respecting unlawful games are utterly indefensible—though all persons should be free to gamble in their own or each other’s houses, or in any place of meeting established by their own subscriptions, and open only to the members and their visitors—yet public gambling-houses should not be permitted. It is true that the prohibition is never effectual, and that whatever amount of tyrannical power is given to the police, gambling-houses can always be maintained under other pretences; but they may be compelled to conduct their operations with a certain degree of secrecy and mystery, so that nobody knows anything about them but those who seek them; and more than this, society ought not to aim at. There is considerable force in these arguments; I will not venture to decide whether they are sufficient to justify the moral anomaly of punishing the accessary, when the principal is (and must be) allowed to go free; or fining or imprisoning the procurer, but not the fornicator, the gambling-house keeper, but not the gambler. Still less ought the common operations of buying and selling to be interfered with on analogous grounds. Almost every article which is bought and sold may be used in excess, and the sellers have a pecuniary interest in encouraging that excess; but no argument can be founded on this, in favour, for instance, of the Maine Law; because the class of dealers in strong drinks, though interested in their abuse, are indispensably required for the sake of their legitimate use. The interest, however, of these dealers in promoting intemperance is a real evil, and justifies the State in imposing restrictions and requiring guarantees, which but for that justification would be infringements of legitimate liberty.

A further question is, whether the State, while it permits, should nevertheless indirectly discourage conduct which it deems contrary to the best interests of the agent; whether, for example, it should take measures to render the means of drunkenness more costly, or add to the difficulty of procuring them, by limiting the number of the places of sale. On this as on most other practical questions, many distinctions require to be made. To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable. Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price; and to those who do, it is a penalty laid on them for gratifying a particular taste. Their choice of pleasures, and their mode of expending their income, after satisfying their legal and moral obligations to the State and to individuals, are their own concern, and must rest with their own judgment. These considerations may seem at first sight to condemn the selection of stimulants as special subjects of taxation for purposes of revenue. But it must be remembered that taxation for fiscal purposes is absolutely inevitable; that in most countries it is necessary that a considerable part of that taxation should be indirect; that the State, therefore, cannot help imposing penalties, which to some persons may be prohibitory, on the use of some articles of consumption. It is hence the duty of the State to consider, in the imposition of taxes, what commodities the consumers can best spare; and à fortiori, to select in preference those of which it deems the use, beyond a very moderate quantity, to be positively injurious. Taxation, therefore, of stimulants, up to the point which produces the largest amount of revenue (supposing that the State needs all the revenue which it yields) is not only admissible, but to be approved of.

The question of making the sale of these commodities a more or less exclusive privilege, must be answered differently, according to the purposes to which the restriction is intended to be subservient. All places of public resort require the restraint of a police, and places of this kind peculiarly, because offences against society are especially apt to originate there. It is, therefore, fit to confine the power of selling these commodities (at least for consumption on the spot) to persons of known or vouched-for respectability of conduct; to make such regulations respecting hours of opening and closing as may be requisite for public surveillance, and to withdraw the licence if breaches of the peace repeatedly take place through the connivance or incapacity of the keeper of the house, or if it becomes a rendezvous for concocting and preparing offences against the law. Any further restriction I do not conceive to be, in principle, justifiable. The limitation in number, for instance, of beer and spirit-houses, for the express purpose of rendering them more difficult of access, and diminishing the occasions of temptation, not only exposes all to an inconvenience because there are some by whom the facility would be abused, but is suited only to a state of society in which the labouring classes are avowedly treated as children or savages, and placed under an education of restraint, to fit them for future admission to the privileges of freedom. This is not the principle on which the labouring classes are professedly governed in any free country; and no person who sets due value on freedom will give his adhesion to their being so governed, unless after all efforts have been exhausted to educate them for freedom and govern them as freemen, and it has been definitively proved that they can only be governed as children. The bare statement of the alternative shows the absurdity of supposing that such efforts have been made in any case which needs be considered here. It is only because the institutions of this country are a mass of inconsistencies, that things find admittance into our practice which belong to the system of despotic, or what is called paternal, government, while the general freedom of our institutions precludes the exercise of the amount of control necessary to render the restraint of any real efficacy as a moral education.

It was pointed out in an early part of this Essay, that the liberty of the individual, in things wherein the individual is alone concerned, implies a corresponding liberty in any number of individuals to regulate by mutual agreement such things as regard them jointly, and regard no persons but themselves. This question presents no difficulty, so long as the will of all the persons implicated remains unaltered; but since that will may change, it is often necessary, even in things in which they alone are concerned, that they should enter into engagements with one another; and when they do, it is fit, as a general rule, that those engagements should be kept. Yet in the laws, probably, of every country, this general rule has some exceptions. Not only persons are not held to engagements which violate the rights of third parties, but it is sometimes considered a sufficient reason for releasing them from an engagement, that it is injurious to themselves. In this and most other civilised countries, for example, an engagement by which a person should sell himself, or allow himself to be sold, as a slave, would be null and void; neither enforced by law nor by opinion. The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot in life, is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person’s voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at the least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it. But by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it, beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. He is no longer free; but is thenceforth in a position which has no longer the presumption in its favour, that would be afforded by his voluntarily remaining in it. The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom. These reasons, the force of which is so conspicuous in this peculiar case, are evidently of far wider application; yet a limit is everywhere set to them by the necessities of life, which continually require, not indeed that we should resign our freedom, but that we should consent to this and the other limitation of it. The principle, however, which demands uncontrolled freedom of action in all that concerns only the agents themselves, requires that those who have become bound to one another, in things which concern no third party, should be able to release one another from the engagement: and even without such voluntary release, there are perhaps no contracts or engagements, except those that relate to money or money’s worth, of which one can venture to say that there ought to be no liberty whatever of retractation. Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, in the excellent essay from which I have already quoted, states it as his conviction, that engagements which involve personal relations or services, should never be legally binding beyond a limited duration of time; and that the most important of these engagements, marriage, having the peculiarity that its objects are frustrated unless the feelings of both the parties are in harmony with it, should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it. This subject is too important, and too complicated, to be discussed in a parenthesis, and I touch on it only so far as is necessary for purposes of illustration. If the conciseness and generality of Baron Humboldt’s dissertation had not obliged him in this instance to content himself with enunciating his conclusion without discussing the premises, he would doubtless have recognised that the question cannot be decided on grounds so simple as those to which he confines himself. When a person, either by express promise or by conduct, has encouraged another to rely upon his continuing to act in a certain way—to build expectations and calculations, and stake any part of his plan of life upon that supposition, a new series of moral obligations arises on his part towards that person, which may possibly be overruled, but cannot be ignored. And again, if the relation between two contracting parties has been followed by consequences to others; if it has placed third parties in any peculiar position, or, as in the case of marriage, has even called third parties into existence, obligations arise on the part of both the contracting parties towards those third persons, the fulfilment of which, or at all events the mode of fulfilment, must be greatly affected by the continuance or disruption of the relation between the original parties to the contract. It does not follow, nor can I admit, that these obligations extend to requiring the fulfilment of the contract at all costs to the happiness of the reluctant party; but they are a necessary element in the question; and even if, as Von Humboldt maintains, they ought to make no difference in the legal freedom of the parties to release themselves from the engagement (and I also hold that they ought not to make much difference), they necessarily make a great difference in the moral freedom. A person is bound to take all these circumstances into account, before resolving on a step which may affect such important interests of others; and if he does not allow proper weight to those interests, he is morally responsible for the wrong. I have made these obvious remarks for the better illustration of the general principle of liberty, and not because they are at all needed on the particular question, which, on the contrary, is usually discussed as if the interest of children was everything, and that of grown persons nothing.

I have already observed that, owing to the absence of any recognised general principles, liberty is often granted where it should be withheld, as well as withheld where it should be granted; and one of the cases in which, in the modern European world, the sentiment of liberty is the strongest, is a case where, in my view, it is altogether misplaced. A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another, under the pretext that the affairs of another are his own affairs. The State, while it respects the liberty of each in what specially regards himself, is bound to maintain a vigilant control over his exercise of any power which it allows him to possess over others. This obligation is almost entirely disregarded in the case of the family relations, a case, in its direct influence on human happiness, more important than all others taken together. The almost despotic power of husbands over wives need not be enlarged upon here because nothing more is needed for the complete removal of the evil, than that wives should have the same rights, and should receive the protection of law in the same manner, as all other persons; and because, on this subject, the defenders of established injustice do not avail themselves of the plea of liberty, but stand forth openly as the champions of power. It is in the case of children, that misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfilment by the State of its duties. One would almost think that a man’s children were supposed to be literally, and not metaphorically, a part of himself, so jealous is opinion of the smallest interference of law with his absolute and exclusive control over them; more jealous than of almost any interference with his own freedom of action: so much less do the generality of mankind value liberty than power. Consider, for example, the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen? Yet who is there that is not afraid to recognise and assert this truth? Hardly any one indeed will deny that it is one of the most sacred duties of the parents (or, as law and usage now stand, the father), after summoning a human being into the world, to give to that being an education fitting him to perform his part well in life towards others and towards himself. But while this is unanimously declared to be the father’s duty, scarcely anybody, in this country, will bear to hear of obliging him to perform it. Instead of his being required to make any exertion or sacrifice for securing education to the child, it is left to his choice to accept it or not when it is provided gratis! It still remains unrecognised, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.

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Filed under Europe, Mental Illness: depression, despair, insanity, delusion, Mill, John Stuart, Selections, The Modern Era


from Dialogue Between Plotinus and Porphyry


The Italian writer Count Giacomo Leopardi was born in the provincial town of Recanati, in Marche, Italy. His home environment was oppressive. Leopardi was also plagued by continual physical maladies from an early age, including a spinal condition that made him a hunchback. Precocious from childhood, by the age of 16 Leopardi had read all the Latin and Greek classics, could write in several languages, and had written essays on classics, astronomy, and history. In 1816, partly under the influence of his friend Pietro Giordani, Leopardi turned his attention to literature: he began work on the 61-poem collection I canti (1831, 1835, 1845), containing poems written from 1819 to 1837. In these poems, Leopardi espoused a pessimistic philosophy, revealing a belief in a meaningless and alienating universe that offers no hope. He presents a philosophy of despair, exhibiting the triumph of evil, the insignificance of existence, and the allurement of death.

In 1822, Leopardi left Recanati for a three-month stay in Rome, which he found to be a corrupt society hostile to novel ideas. Disillusioned and unable to find work, he reluctantly returned to his oppressive hometown. In 1825, he went to Bologna and Milan to continue his writing, but physical and financial problems forced a return; trips to Florence and Pisa in 1827–28 also ended in a return. Two years later, he received a loan from friends and was finally able to leave “that horrible nightmare of Recanati.” Leopardi’s other writings from this time are united in their search for beauty and truth in an antagonistic world. Leopardi retired to Naples in 1833, where he lived with continuous physical suffering and hopeless despondency until his death in 1837.

Leopardi asserts that suicide, unlike death, is not a grand negation of existence but an act directed against the share of unhappiness that pervades human life, and therefore solves nothing. In the “Dialogue between Plotinus and Porphyrius,” published in Opperette Morali (1827, 1834, and 1835), Leopardi simulates a debate between two neo-Platonist Roman philosophers about whether suicide violates the rules of nature. Plotinus (204/205–270) [q.v.], ascetic and otherworldly, was the teacher of Porphyrius (known in English as Porphyry, c. 234–305), who became disillusioned with life and suicidal after studying his teacher’s philosophy. Porphyry’s arguments for suicide include the claim that all perception is false except for “ennui” (described by Leopardi as a sublime sentiment experienced only by the intelligent), that Plato’s [q.v.] restrictions on self-destruction and his idea of heaven are ruinous, and that the unnatural effects of civilization upon human life justify an unnatural means to end the suffering they inflict. Plotinus counters him with assertions that suicide is selfish, against strict natural laws, and overemphasizes the gravity of suffering in the brief span of a human life.

Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogue between Plotinus and Porphyrius,” in Essays and Dialogues of Giacomo Leopardi, tr. Charles Edwards. London: Trübner and Co., 1882, pp. 182-196.


“One day when I, Porphyrius, was meditating about taking my own life, Plotinus guessed my intention. He interrupted me, and said that such a design could not proceed from a healthy mind, but was due to some melancholy indisposition, and that I must have change of air.”

The same incident is recounted in the life of Plotinus by Eunapius, who adds that Plotinus recorded in a book the conversation he then held with Porphyrius on the subject.    Plotinus. You know, Porphyrius, how sincerely I am your friend. You will not wonder therefore that I am unquiet about you. For some time I have noticed how sad and thoughtful you are; your expression of countenance is unusual, and you have let fall certain words which make me anxious. In short, I fear that you contemplate some evil design.

Porphyrius. How! What do you mean?

Plotinus. I think you intend to do yourself some injury; it were a bad omen to give the deed its name. Listen to me, dear Porphyrius, and do not conceal the truth. Do not wrong the friendship that has so long existed between us. I know my words will cause you displeasure, and I can easily understand that you would rather have kept your design hid. But I could not be silent in such a matter, and you ought not to refuse to confide in one who loves you as much as himself. Let us then talk calmly, weighing our words. Open your heart to me. Tell me your troubles, and let me be auditor of your lamentations. I have deserved your confidence. I promise, on my part, not to oppose the carrying out of your resolution, if we agree that it is useful and reasonable.

Porphyrius. I have never denied a request of yours, dear Plotinus. I will therefore confess to you what I would rather keep to myself; nothing in the world would induce me to tell it to anyone else. You are right in your interpretation of my thoughts. If you wish to discuss the subject, I will not refuse, in spite of my dislike to do so; for on such occasions the mind prefers to encompass itself with a lofty silence, and to meditate in solitude, giving itself up for the time to a state of complete self-absorption. Nevertheless, I am willing to do as you please.

In the first place, I may say that my design is not the consequence of any special misfortune. It is simply the result of an utter weariness of life, and a continuous ennui which has long possessed me like a pain. To this may be added a feeling of the vanity and nothingness of all things, which pervades me in body and soul. Do not say that this disposition of mind is unreasonable, though I will allow that it may in part from physical causes. It is in itself perfectly reasonable, and therein differs from all our other dispositions; for everything which makes us attach some value to life and human things, proves on analysis to be contrary to reason, and to proceed from some illusion or falsity. Nothing is more rational than ennui. Pleasures are all unreal. Pain itself, at least mental pain, is equally false, because on examination it is seen to have scarcely any foundation, or none at all. The same may be said of fear and hope. Ennui alone, which is born from the vanity of things, is genuine, and never deceives. If, then, all else be vain, the reality of life is summed up in ennui.

Plotinus. It may be so. I will not contradict you as to that. But we must now consider the nature of your project. You know Plato refused to allow that man is at liberty to escape, like a fugitive slave, from the captivity in which he is placed by the will of the gods, in depriving himself of life.

Porphyrius. I beg you, dear Plotinus, to leavePlato alone now, with his doctrines and dreams. It is one thing to praise, explain, and champion certain theories in the schools and in books, but quite another to practically exemplify them. School-teaching and books constrain us to admire Plato, and conform to him, because such is the custom in the present day. But in real life, far from being admired, he is even detested. It is true Plato is said to have spread abroad by his writings the notion of a future life, thus leaving men in doubt as to their fate after death, and serving a good purpose in deterring men from evil in this life, through fear of punishment in the next. If I imagined Plato to have been the inventor of these ideas and beliefs, I would speak thus to him:—

“You observe, O Plato, how inimical to our race the power which governs the world has always been, weather known as Nature, Destiny, or Fate. Many reasons contradict the supposition that man has that high rank in the order of creation which we are pleased to imagine; but by no reason can he be deprived of the characteristic attributed to him by Homer—that of suffering. Nature, however, has given us a remedy for all evils. It is death, little feared by those who are not fully intelligent, and by all others desired.

“But you have deprived us of this dearest consolation of our life, full of suffering that it is. The doubts raised by you have torn this comfort from our minds, and made the thought of death the bitterest of all thoughts. Thanks to you, unhappy mortals now fear the storm less than the port. Driven from their one place of repose, and robbed of the only remedy they could look for, they resign themselves to the sufferings and troubles of life. Thus, you have been more cruel towards us than Destiny, Nature, or Fate. And since this doubt, once conceived, can never be got rid of, to you is it due that your fellow-men regard death as something more terrible than life. You are to blame that rest and peace are for ever banished from the last moments of man, whereas all other animals die in perfect fearlessness. This one thing, O Plato, was wanting to complete the sum of human misery.

“True, your intention was good. But it has failed in its purpose. Violence and injustice are not arrested, for evil-doers only realise the terrors of death in their last moments, when quite powerless to do more harm. Your doubts trouble only the good, who are more disposed to benefit than injure their fellow-men, and the weak and timid, who are neither inclined by nature nor disposition to oppress anyone. Bold and strong men, who have scarcely any power of imagination, and those who require some other restraint than mere law, regard these fears as chimerical, and are undeterred from evil doing. We see daily instances of this, and the experience of all the centuries, from your time down to the present, confirms it. Good laws, still more, good education, and mental and social culture,—these are the things that preserve justice and mildness amongst men. Civilization, and the use of reflection and reason, make men almost always hate to war with each other and shed one another’s blood, and render them disinclined to quarrel, and endanger their lives by lawlessness. But such good results are never due to threatening fancies, and bitter expectation of terrible chastisement; these, like the multitude and cruelty of the punishments used in certain states, only serve to increase the baseness and ferocity of men, and are therefore opposed to the well-being of human society.

“Perhaps, however, you will reply that you have promised a reward in the future for the good. What then is this reward? A state of life which seems full of ennui, even less tolerable than our present existence! The bitterness of your punishments is unmistakable; but the sweetness of your rewards is hidden and secret, incomprehensible to our minds. How then can order and virtue be said to be encouraged by your doctrine? I will venture to say that if but few men have been deterred from evil by the fear of your terrible Tartarus, no good man has been led to perform a single praiseworthy action by desire of your Elysium. Such a paradise does not attract us in the least. But, apart from the fact that your heaven is scarcely an inviting place, who among the best of us can hope to merit it? What man can satisfy you inexorable judges, Minos, Eacus, and Rhadamanthus, who will not overlook one single fault, however trivial? Besides, who can say that he has reached your standard of purity? In short, we cannot look for happiness in the world to come; and however clear a mans conscience may be, or however upright his life, in his last hour he will dread the future with its terrible incertitude. It is due to your teaching that fear is a much stronger influence than hope, and may be said to dominate mankind.

“This then is the result of your doctrines. Man, whose life on earth is wretched in the extreme; anticipates death, not as an end to all his miseries, but as the beginning of a condition more wretched still. Thus, you surpass in cruelty, not only Nature and Destiny, but the most merciless tyrant and bloodthirsty executioner the world has ever known. “But what cruelty can exceed that of your law, forbidding man to put an end to his sufferings and troubles by voluntarily depriving himself of life, thereby triumphing over the horrors of death? Other animals do not desire to put an end to their life, because their unhappiness is less than ours; nor would they even have sufficient courage to face a voluntary death. But if they did wish to die, what should deter them from fulfilling their desire? They are affected by no prohibition, nor fear of the future. Here again you make us inferior to brute beasts. The liberty they possess, they do not use; the liberty granted also to us by Nature, so miserly in her gifts, you take away. Thus, the only creatures capable of desiring death, have the right to die refused them. Nature, Destiny, and Fortune overwhelm us with cruel blows, that cause us to suffer fearfully; you add to our sufferings by tying our arms and enchaining our feet, so that we can neither defend ourselves, nor escape from our persecutors.

“Truly, when I think over the great wretchedness of humanity, it seems to me that your doctrines, above all things, O Plato, are guilty of it, and that men may well complain of you more than of Nature. For the latter, in decreeing for us an existence full of unhappiness, has left us the means of escaping from it when we please. Indeed, unhappiness cannot be called extreme, when we have in our hands the power to shorten it at will. Besides, the mere thought of being able to quit life at pleasure, and withdraw from the miseries of the world, is so great an alleviation of our lot, that in itself it suffices to render existence supportable. Consequently, there can be no doubt that our chief unhappiness proceeds from the fear, that in abbreviating our life we might be plunged into a state of greater misery than the present. And not only will our misery be greater in the future, but it will be so full of the refinement of cruelty, that a comparison of these unexperienced tortures with the known sufferings of this life, reduces the latter almost to insignificance.

“You have easily, O Plato, raised this question of immortality; but the human species will become extinct before it is settled. Your genius is the most fatal thing that has ever afflicted humanity, and nothing can ever exist more disastrous in its effects.”

That is what I would say to Plato had he invented the doctrine we are discussing; but I am well aware he did not originate it. However, enough has been said. Let us drop the subject, if you please.

Plotinus. Porphyrius, you know how I revere Plato; yet in talking to you on such an occasion as this, I will give you my own opinion, and will disregard his authority. The few words of his that I spoke were rather as an introduction, than anything else. Returning to my first argument, I affirm that not only Plato and every other philosopher, but Nature herself, teaches us that it is improper to take away our own life. I will not say much on this point, because if you reflect a little, I am sure you will agree with me that suicide is unnatural. It is indeed an action the most contrary possible to nature. The whole order of things would be subverted if the beings of the world destroyed themselves. And it is repugnant and absurd to suppose that life is given only to be taken away by its possessor, and that beings should exist only to become non-existent. The law of self-preservation is enjoined in every possible way on man and all creatures of the universe. And, apart from anything else, do we not instinctively fear, hate, and shun death, even in spite of ourselves? Therefore, since suicide is so utterly contrary to our nature, I cannot think that it is permissible.

Porphyrius.  I have already meditated on the subject from all points of view; for the mind could not design such a step without due consideration. It seems to me that all your reasoning is answerable with just as much counter reasoning. But I will be brief.

You doubt whether it be permissible to die without necessity. I ask you if it be permissible to be unhappy? Nature, you say, forbids suicide. It is a strange thing that since she is either unable or unwilling to make me happy, or free me from unhappiness, she should have the power to force me to live. If Nature has given us a love of life, and a hatred of death, she has also given us a love of happiness, and a hatred of suffering; and the latter instincts are much more powerful than the former, because happiness is the supreme aim of all our actions and sentiments of love or hatred. For to what end do we shun death, or desire life, save to promote our well-being, and for fear of the contrary?

How then can it be unnatural to escape from suffering in the only way open to man, that is, by dying; since in life it can never be avoided? How, too, can it be true, that Nature forbids me to devote myself to death, which is undoubtedly a good thing, and to reject life, which is undoubtedly an evil and injurious thing, since it is a source of nothing but suffering to me?

Plotinus. These things do not persuade me that suicide is not unnatural. Have we not a strong instinctive horror of death? Besides, we never see brute beasts, which invariably follow the instincts of their nature (when not contrarily trained by man), either commit suicide, or regard death as anything but a condition to be struggled against, even in their moments of greatest suffering. In short, all men who commit this desperate act, will be found to have lived out of conformity to nature. They, on the contrary, who live naturally, would without exception reject suicide, if even the thought proposed itself to them.

  1. Well, if you like, I will admit that the action is contrary to nature. But what has that to do with it, if we ourselves do not conform to nature; that is, are no longer savages? Compare ourselves, for instance, with the inhabitants of India or Ethiopia, who are said to have retained their primitive manner and wild habits. You would scarcely think that these people were even of the same species as ourselves. This transformation of life, and change of manners and customs by civilization, has been accompanied, in my opinion, by an immeasurable increase of suffering. Savages never wish to commit suicide, nor does there imagination induce them to regard death as a desirable thing; whereas we who are civilised wish for it, and sometimes voluntarily seek it.

Now, if man be permitted to live unnaturally, and be consequently unhappy, why may he not also die unnaturally? For death is indeed the only way by which he can deliver himself from the unhappiness that results from civilization. Or, why not return to our primitive condition, and state of nature? Ah, we should find it almost impossible as far as mere external circumstances are concerned, and in the more important matters of the mind quite impossible. What is less natural than medicine? By this I mean surgery, and the use drugs. They are both ordinary used expressly to combat nature, and are quite unknown to brute beasts and savages. Yet, since the diseases they remedy are unnatural, and only occur in civilised countries, where people have fallen from their natural condition, these arts, being also unnatural, are highly esteemed and even indispensable. Similarly, suicide, which is a radical cure for the disease of despair, one of the outcomes of civilisation, must not be blamed because it is unnatural; for unnatural evils require unnatural remedies. It would indeed be hard and unjust that reason, which increases our misery by forcing us to go contrary to nature, should in this matter join hands with nature, and take from us our only remaining hope and refuge, and the only resource consistent with itself, and should force us to continue in our wretchedness.

The truth is this, Plotinus. Our primitive nature has departed from us for ever. Habit and reason have given us a new nature in place of the old one, to which we shall never return. Formerly, it was unnatural for men to commit suicide, or desire death. In the present day, both are natural. They conform to our new nature, which however, like the old one, still impels us to seek our happiness. And since death is our greatest good, is it remarkable that men should voluntarily seek it? For our reason tells us that death is not an evil, but, as the remedy for all evils, is the most desirable of things.

Now tell me: are all other actions of civilised men regulated by the standard of their primitive nature? If so, give me a single instance. No, it is our present and not our primitive nature, that interprets our action; in other words, it is our reason. Why then should suicide alone be judged unreasonably, and from the aspect of our primitive nature? Why should this latter, which has no influence over our life, control our death which rules our life? It is a fact, whether due to reason or our unhappiness, that in many people, especially those who are unfortunate and afflicted, the primitive hatred of death is extinguished, and even changed into desire and love, as I have said. Such love, though incompatible with our early nature, is a reality in the present day. We are also necessarily unhappy because we live unnaturally. It were therefore manifestly unreasonable to assert that the prohibition which forbade suicide in the primitive state should hold good. This seems to me sufficient justification of the deed. It remains to be proved whether or not it be useful.

Plotinus. Never mind that side of the question, my dear Porphyrius, because if the deed be permissible, I have no doubt of its extreme utility. But I will never admit that a forbidden and improper action can be useful. The matter really resolves itself into this: which is the better, to suffer or not to suffer? It is certain that most men would prefer suffering mixed with enjoyment, so ardently do we desire and thirst after joy. But this is beside the question, because enjoyment and pleasure, properly speaking, are as impossible as suffering is inevitable. I mean a suffering as continuous as our never satisfied desire for pleasure and happiness, and quite apart from the peculiar and accidental suffering which must infallibly be experienced by even the happiest of men. In truth, were we certain that in continuing to live, we should continue thus to suffer, we should have sufficient reason to prefer death to life; because existence does not contain a single genuine pleasure to compensate for such suffering, even if that were possible.

Porphyrius. It seems to me that ennui alone, and the fact that we cannot hope for an improved existence, are sufficiently cogent reasons to induce a desire for death, even though our condition be one of prosperity. And it is often a matter of surprise to me that we have no record of princes having committed suicide through ennui and weariness of their grandeur, like other men in lower stations of life. We read how Hegesias, the Cyrenaic, used to reason so eloquently about the miseries of life, that his auditors straightway went and committed suicide; for which reason he was called the “death persuader,” and was at length forbidden by Ptolemy to hold further discourse on the subject. Certain princes, it is true, have been suicides, amongst others Mithridates, Cleopatra, and Otho. But these all put an end to themselves to escape some peculiar evils, or from dread of an increase of misfortune. Princes are, I imagine, more liable than other men to feel a hatred of their condition, and to think favourably of suicide. For have they not reached the summit of what is called human happiness? They have nothing to hope for, because they have everything that forms a part of the so-called good things of this life. They cannot anticipate greater pleasure to-morrow than they have enjoyed to-day. Thus they are more unfortunately situated than all less exalted people. For the present is always sad and unsatisfactory; the future alone is a source of pleasure.

But be that as it may. We see that there is nothing to prevent men voluntarily quitting life, and preferring death, save the fear of another world. All other reasons are probably ill-founded. They are due to a wrong estimate, in comparing the advantages and evils of existence; and whoever at any time feels a strong attachment to life, or lives in a state of contentment, does so under a mistake, either of judgment, will, or even fact.

Plotinus. That is true, dear Porphyrius. But nevertheless, let me advise, nay implore, you to listen to the counsels of Nature rather than Reason. Follow the instincts of that primitive Nature, mother of us all, who, though she has manifested no affection for us in creating us for unhappiness, is a less bitter and cruel foe than our own reason, with its boundless curiosity, speculation, chattering, dream, ideas, and miserable learning. Besides, Nature has sought to diminish our unhappiness by concealing or disguising it from us as much as possible. And although we are greatly changed, and the power of nature within us is much lessened, we are not so altered but that much of our former manhood remains, and our primitive nature is not quite stifled within us. In spite of all our folly, it will never be otherwise. So, too, the mistaken view of life that you mention, although I admit that it is in reality palpably erroneous, will continue to prevail. It is held not only by idiots and the half-witted, but by clever, wise, and learned men, and always will be, unless the Nature that made us—and not man nor his reason—herself put an end to it. And I assure you that neither disgust of life, nor despair, nor the sense of the nullity of things, the vanity of all anxiety, and the insignificance of man, nor hatred of the world and oneself, are of long duration; although such dispositions of mind are perfectly reasonable, and the contrary unreasonable. For our physical condition changes momentarily in more or less degree; and often without any especial cause life endears itself to us again, and new hopes give brightness to human things, which once more seem worthy of some attention, not indeed from our understanding, but from what may be termed the higher senses of the intellect. This is why each of us, though perfectly aware of the truth, continues to live in spite of Reason, and conforms to the behavior of others; for our life is controlled by these senses, and not by the understanding.

Whether suicide be reasonable, or our compromise with life unreasonable, the former is certainly a horrible and inhuman action. It were better to follow Nature, and remain man, than act like a monster in following Reason. Besides, ought we not to give some thought to the friends, relatives, acquaintances, and people with whom we have been accustomed to live, and from whom we should thus separate for ever? And if the thought of such separation be nothing to us, ought we not to consider their feeling? They lose one whom they loved and respected; and the atrocity of his death enhances their grief. I know that the wise man is not easily moved, nor yields to pity and lamentation to a disquieting extent; he does not abase himself to the ground, shed tears immoderately, nor do other similar things unworthy of one who clearly understands the condition of humanity. But such fortitude of soul should be reserved for grievous circumstances that arise from nature, or are unavoidable; it is an abuse of fortitude to deprive ourselves for ever of the society and conversation of those who are dear to us. He is a barbarian, and not a wise man, who takes no account of the grief experienced by his friends, relations, and acquaintances. He who scarcely troubles himself about the grief his death would cause to his friends and family is selfish; he cares little for others, and all for himself. And truly, the suicide thinks only of himself. He desires nought but his personal welfare, and throws away all thought of the rest of the world. In short, suicide is an action of the most unqualified and sordid egotism, and is certainly the least attractive form of self-love that exists in the world.

Finally, my dear Porphyrius, the troubles and evils of life, although many and inevitable, when, as in your case, unaccompanied by grievous calamity or bodily infirmity, are after all easy to be borne, especially by a wise and strong man like yourself. And indeed, life itself is of so little importance, that man ought not to trouble himself much either to retain or abandon it; and, without thinking greatly about it, we ought to give the former instinct precedence over the latter.

If a friend begged you to do this why should you not gratify him?

Now I earnestly entreat you, dear Porphyrius, by the memory of our long friendship, put away this idea. Do not grieve your friends, who love you with such warm affection, and your Plotinus, who has no dearer nor better friend in the world. Help us to bear the burden of life, instead of leaving us without thought. Let us live, dear Porphyrius, and console each other. Let us not refuse our share of the suffering of humanity, apportioned to us by destiny. Let us cling to each other with mutual encouragement, and hand in hand strengthen one another better to bear the troubles of life. Our time after all will be short; and when death comes, we will not complain. In the last hour, our friends and companions will comfort us, and we shall be gladdened by the thought that after death we shall still live in their memory, and be loved by them.                                                                                                                     

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