Category Archives: Christianity


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


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

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

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

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

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




The Right to Bodily Life

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from The Moral Problem of Suicide


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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Christianity, Europe, Landsberg, Paul-Louis, Martyrdom, Selections, Sin, Stoicism, The Modern Era


from The Principles of Psychology
from Is Life Worth Living?


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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


from 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 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 On the Influence of the Passions
from Reflections on Suicide


Anne Louise Germaine née Necker, Baroness of Staël-Holstein, widely known as Madame de Staël, was an important Swiss-French writer known for her work in literary criticism and for her novels. She was the daughter of a politician, Jacques Necker; in 1786, she married the Swedish ambassador to France, Baron de Staël-Holstein, in a marriage of convenience. Her first works were romantic love stories, but success came with her letters on Rousseau. She was much involved in the events of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, defending her friends among the liberal aristocrats, often at the peril of her own life. Her literary contributions are considerable, including The Influence of Literature on Society (1800), and the novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807). She published a lengthy work on German philosophy and literature, On Germany, in 1810, which attempted to stimulate France to fresh creativity, idealizing the German Romantic movement in an implicit critique of Napoleon’s France. All 5,000 copies of the printed book (2 vols.), the plates, and the manuscript were confiscated and destroyed by Napoleon, and only the quick action of her son saved a copy of the manuscript, which was published three years later in London. She was banished from France by Napoleon. She also published works on Rousseau and on the French Revolution.

Mme. de Staël, in one respect nearly unique among authors on suicide, published two starkly different views of self-killing. In 1798, in On the Influence of the Passions, she defended suicide as a valid solution to what she refers to as the unhappiness of “passionate minds.” Later, however, she rejected this view in Reflections on Suicide (1812), arguing resolutely against it. She gives the following account of this turnabout: “In my work On the Influence of the Passions I have applauded suicide and I have ever since repented of that inconsiderate expression. I was then in the pride and vivacity of early youth, but of what use is life, without the hope of improvement.” The work concludes with her reconstruction of Lady Jane Grey’s last days in the Tower of London, considering—and rejecting—the option of suicide.

Baroness of Staël-Holstein, A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and of Nations, tr. K. Staël-Holstein. London: George Cawthorne, [1789] 1798; Madame de Staël, Reflections on Suicide, in George Combe, The Constitution of Man, Considered in Relation to External Objects, Alexandrian edition. Columbus, OH: J & H Miller, n.d., second half of volume, pp. 99-112.


…of all the passions, love is the most fatal to the happiness of man. If we had the courage to die, we might venture to indulge the hope of so delightful a fate, but we resign our minds to the empire of feelings which poison the rest of our life. For some moments we enjoy a happiness which has no correspondence with the ordinary state of life, and we wish to survive its loss. The instinct of self preservation is more powerful than the emotions of despair, and we continue to exist without being able to indulge the hope of recovering in the future what the past has taken from us, without being able to find any reason to abandon our sorrow, either in the circle of the passions, in the sphere even of a sentiment which, deriving its source in a real principle, can admit of no consolation from reflection. None but men capable of resolving to commit suicide, can with any shadow of wisdom, venture to explore this grand path of happiness.*

But he who desires to live, and exposes himself to the necessity of retreat; he who desires to live, and yet renounces in any manner the empire over his own mind, devotes himself, like a madman, to the greatest of misfortunes.

The majority of men, and even a great number of women, have no idea of this sentiment, such as I have described it; and there are more people qualified to appreciate the merit of Newton than to judge of the real passion of love. A kind of ridicule is attached to what are called romantic sentiments; and those little minds, who assign so much importance to all the details of their self-love or of their interest, have arrogated to themselves a superior degree of reason to those whose character hurries them into a different kind of selfishness, which society considers with greater indulgence in the man who is occupied exclusively with himself. People of vigorousunderstandings consider the labours of thought, the services done to the human race, as alone deserving of the esteem of men. There are some geniuses who are entitled to consider themselves as useful to their fellow creatures; but how very few can flatter themselves with the possession of any thing more glorious than to constitute the happiness of another! Severe moralists dread the wanderings of such a passion. Alas! In our days, happy the nation, happy the individuals, that could boast of men susceptible of the impulse of sensibility! But, indeed, so many fleeting emotions bear a resemblance to love, so many attachments of quite a different nature, among women from vanity, among men from youth, take the appearance of this sentiment, that these degraded copies have almost entirely effaced the remembrance of the real object. In a word, there are certain characters prone to love, who, deeply convinced of the obstacles which oppose the happiness of this passion, which thwart its perfection, and, above all, threaten its permanence; and alarmed at the irritability of their own hearts, and those of others, reject, with courageous reason and timid sensibility, every thing that could excite this passion. From all these causes arise the errors adopted even by philosophers with regard to the real importance of the attachment of the heart, and the unbounded tortures which those who resign themselves to its guidance are accustomed to experience.

It unfortunately is not true, that we are never captivated but by the qualities which bespeak a certain resemblance of character and sentiments. The charms of a seducing figure, that species of advantage which permits the imagination to conceive all the beauties by which it is captivated, and to see all the expression which it wishes, acts powerfully upon an attachment which cannot exist without enthusiasm. The grace of manner, wit, language; in a word, grace, more difficult to be defined than any other charm, inspires this sentiment, which, at first over-looked, frequently arises from something which cannot be explained. Such an origin cannot secure either the happiness or the duration of a connection. Yet when love exists, the illusion is complete, and nothing can equal the despair excited by the certainty of having loved an object unworthy of us. This fatal ray of light darts in, and awakens reason before it has detached the heart. Haunted by the opinion we had formed, which we must now renounce, we still love while we cease to esteem. We act as if there still were room for hope. In our torture, as if all hope had vanished, we cling to the image which we ourselves have created. We hang upon those features which once we considered as the emblems of virtue, and we are repulsed by something more cruel than hatred, by the want of every tender and profound emotion. We ask if the object on which we doat is of another nature, if we are wild in our paroxysms. We could wish to persuade ourselves that we are distracted, in order to belie the judgment we pronounce on the heart of those we loved. The past even no longer exists to cherish our recollections. The opinion we are forced to adopt recurs to the moment when we were deceived. We call to mind those incidents which should have opened our eyes, and the misery we feel is diffused over every moment of life; regret is connected with remorse and melancholy; the last hope of the wretched can no more soften that repentance which agitates and consumes our frame, and renders solitude frightful, without rendering us capable of amusement.

If, on the contrary, there has been a single moment of life in which we have been beloved; if the object on whom we had fixed our choice was generous, was in any respect such as we had conceived him to be; and if time, the inconstancy of the imagination, which likewise loosens the attachments of the heart; or if another object less worthy of his tenderness has deprived us of that love on which our whole existence depended, how agonizing are the sufferings which we experience from this overthrow of our scheme of life! How poignant the tortures of that moment when the hand, which so often has traced the most sacred oaths of the eternal love, traces in characters, that stab to the heart, the cruel intelligence, that we have ceased to be the objects of affection! Oh! How painful, when comparing the letters which the same hand had written, our eyes can scarcely believe that the different periods at which they were composed, can alone explain the difference! How agonizing our sensations, when that voice, whose accents haunted us in solitude, thrilled through our agitated soul, and seemed to recall the fondest recollections; when that voice speaks to us without emotion, without embarrassment, without betraying the slightest movement of the heart! Alas! The passion we still feel, long renders it impossible to believe that we cease to interest the object of our tenderness. We seem to experience a sentiment which requires to be communicated. We imagine that we are separated by a barrier independent of his will; that when we see, when we speak to him, the feelings of the past will revive; that he will again yield to the tenderness he once experienced; we imagine that hearts, which have once completely unbosomed themselves, cannot cease to cherish the ancient union; we imagine that nothing can renew the impulse which we alone possess the secret of bestowing; yet we know that he is happy far from us, that he is happy with the object least calculated to bring back the recollection of us. The cords of sympathy remain in our hearts, but those which once vibrated in concert to them are annihilated. We must for ever forego the sight of him whose presence would renew our remembrance of the past, and whose conversation would render it still more poignant. We are condemned to wander over the scenes in which he loved us, over those scenes that remain unaltered, to attest the change which all the rest has undergone. Despair is rooted in our hearts, while a thousand duties, while pride itself imposes the necessity of concealment, and no outward sign of woe must challenge the attention of pity. Alone in secret, our whole being is changed from life to death.

What consolation can the world afford to grief like this? The courage of self slaughter! But in this situation even the aid of this terrible act is stripped of that consolation which it sometimes is supposed to bestow. The hope of exciting the interest of others when we are no more, that species of immortality, is for ever torn from her who no longer hopes that her death could inspire regret. It is indeed a most cruel death, to be unable either to afflict, to punish, or to engage the remembrance of the object by whom we are betrayed; and to leave him in the possession of her whom he prefers, inspires a sensation of anguish which extends beyond the grave, as if this idea would haunt us even in its silent retreat.

Most of the metaphysical ideas which I have just been endeavouring to unfold, are pointed out and illustrated by the mythological relations of the ancients respecting the final destiny of those who had signalized themselves by their crimes. The ever-streaming casks of the Danaides, Sysiphus labouring at an huge stone, which rolls down the mountain as often as he strives to roll it up, picture to us a faithful image of that necessity of acting, even without any fixed object, which compels a criminal to the most painful and laborious action, merely because it relieves him from rest, than which nothing to him is so insupportable. Tantalus continually endeavouring to approach an object which as uniformly recedes from him, pourtrays the habitual torment of those men who have consigned themselves over to wickedness and guilt. They are equally unable to attain any thing that is good, or to desist from desiring it. In a word, the ancient philosophical poets were sensible that it was not enough to shadow out and describe the sufferings of repentance; the description of their hell required something more, and they thought it necessary to shew what the wicked experience even in the full career of their wickedness, and what their very passions for crimes made them endure, even before it had ceased to operate, and had been succeeded by remorse.

But it may be asked, why, under the supposed pressure of so painful a situation, the relief of suicide is not more frequently resorted to; for death, after all, is the sole remedy against irreparable ills? But though it but rarely happens, that the profligate lay violent hands upon themselves, it is not, therefore, to be inferred, that the profligate are less unhappy and miserable than those who resolve upon and perpetrate suicide; and, without laying the least stress on that vague uncertain dread, with which the apprehension of what may follow this life, never ceases to haunt the mind of the guilty; there is something in the very act of suicide that argues a sensibility of disposition, and a cast of philosophy, which are altogether foreign to the nature of a depraved soul.

If we fling out of this mortal life, in order to rescue ourselves from the torments of the heart, we are not without a wish that our loss should be somewhat regretted; if we resolve upon suicide from an utter disrelish of existence, which enables us to appreciate the destiny of man, deep and serious reflections, long and repeated examinations of our own mind, must necessarily have preceded that resolution; but the malice with which the heart of the wicked man rankles against his enemies, would make him dread that his death would enable them to breathe in security;—the rage that agitates him, far from disgusting him with life, on the contrary, makes him cling to it with a kind of rancorous rapture; a certain degree of pain dispirits and fatigues; but the irritation that accompanies the perpetration of crimes, makes the criminal fasten upon existence with a mixture of fury and of fear; he beholds in it a kind of prey which he pursues for the pleasure of tearing it in pieces. It is, moreover, peculiar to the character of the eminently guilty, not to acknowledge, even to themselves, the miseries they endure: their pride forbids it. But this illusion, or rather this internal struggle and restraint, in no measure contributes to mitigate their sufferings; for the severest of all pain is that which cannot repose upon itself. The guilty man is ever restless and distrustful, even in the secret recesses of his own mind. He behaves towards himself as if he were negociating with an enemy; he observes with regard to his own reflection the same precaution and reserve which he puts on in order to shew himself in public. Under the alarms of such a state it is impossible there should ever exist that interval of calm meditation, that silence and serenity of reflection which is requisite for a full examination of truth, and in obedience to her dictates, to form an irrevocable resolution.

That courage which enables a man to brave the terrors of death, bears not the least affinity to the disposition that resolves upon self destruction. The greatest criminals may evince intrepidity in the midst of dangers: with them it is an effect of mad folly, a kind of resource, an emotion, a hope that prompts to action; but those very men, though the most miserable of mortal beings, scarcely ever attempt to cut short their existence; whether it be, that Providence has not armed them with this sublime resource, or that there is in the nature of guilt itself a kind of ardent selfishness, which, while it affords no enjoyment, excludes those elevated sentiments with which the boon of protracted existence is spurned and renounced.

Alas! How difficult would it be not to take an interest in the fate of a man who rises superior to nature, when he throws away what he holds from her; when he converts life into an instrument to destroy life; when he can prevail upon himself, by energy of soul, to subdue the most powerful movement of the human breast, the instinct of self-preservation! How difficult would it be not to suppose some generous impulse in the heart of the man whom repentance should drive to the act of suicide!—It is indeed not to be lamented that the truly wicked are incapable of such a resolve; it would, doubtless, be a painful punishment to an honourable soul, no to be able to hold in sovereign contempt a being which it can only loath and execrate.

If the life of man were to consist of but one period or æra, that of youth, then perhaps it might be permitted to run all the chances of the greater passions. But as soon as the winter of old age approaches, it points out and requires a new mode of existence, and this transition the philosopher only can endure with unconcern and without pain. If our faculties, if our desires, which originate from our faculties, were to run in uniform accord with the tenor of our destiny, we might indeed, at all periods of life, enjoy some portion of happiness; but the same blow does not strike at once our faculties and our desires. The lapse of time frequently impairs our lot without having enfeebled our faculties; and, on the contrary, enfeebles our faculties without having extinguished our desires. The activity of the soul survives the means of exercising it; our desires survive the loss of those pleasures to the enjoyment of which they were wont to impel us. The terrors and pangs of dissolution press home upon us, amidst the full consciousness of existence. We are, as it were, called upon to assist at our own funeral; and while we continue to hang with all the vehemence of grief on this mournful spectacle, we renew, within our own breast, the Mezentian punishment; we tie death and life together in one loathsome embrace.

When philosophy assumes the dominion of the soul, its first act is, undoubtedly, to depreciate the value both of what we possess and of what we hope to possess. The passions, on the other hand, magnify, to a great degree, the prices of everything: but when philosophy has once established this medium, or average of moderation, it continues through the whole of life: every moment then suffices to itself; one period of life does not encroach upon the other: nor does the hurricane of the passions disturb their regularity, nor precipitate their course: the years roll on in one tranquil flow, together with their events, and succeed each other in an undisturbed course, agreeably to the intention of nature, and give the breast of man to participate in the silent calm of universal order.

I have already observed, that he who can place suicide among the number of his resolves may fearlessly enter and run the career of the passions: to the passions he may consign his life, if he be but conscious of sufficient resolution to cut short its thread the moment that the thunderbolt of Fate shall have blasted and destroyed the object of all his wishes and of all his cares. But as a kind of instinct, which belongs, I believe, more to our physical than to our moral nature, frequently compels us to preserve a life, every instant of which is marked and marred by misfortune, can it be conceived an easy matter to run the almost certain chance of plunging into misery that will make us execrate existence, and of a disposition of the soul that fills us with the dread of its dissolution?

And this, not because, under such a situation life can still have any charms, but because we must compress into one moment’s space all the incentives of our grief, in order to struggle against the ever-recurring thought of death; and because misfortune spreads itself over the whole extent of life; while the terrors that suicide inspires concentrate themselves into the space of an instant: and, in order to effect the act of self-murder, a man must take in the picture of his misfortunes, like the spectacle of his final end, aided by the intense energy of one sentiment and of one single idea.

Nothing, however, inspires more horror than the possibility of existing purely and simply; and that, for want of sufficient resolution to die. For, as it is our fate to be exposed to all the vehement passions, such an object of dread suffices to make us cherish that power of philosophy, which supports man at the level of the events of life, without either attaching him to it too closely, or making him shrink from it with undue abhorrence.

  1. I am afraid least I be accused of having, in the course of this work, spoken of suicide as an act deserving of praise.
  2. I have not examined it in the ever respectable view of religious principles, but politically.  I am persuaded that republics cannot forego the sentiment which prompted the ancients to commit self-murder; and, in particular situations, passionate minds, which resign themselves to the impulse of their nature, require the prospect of this resource, that they may not be driven to depravity in their misfortunes; and still more, perhaps, they require it during the efforts they exert to avoid them.



To His Highness The Prince Royal of Sweden. 

Stockholm, December, 1812.

My Lord,

I wrote these Reflections on Suicide, at a time when misfortune rendered the solace of meditation necessary to sustain me. Near you, my lord, my troubles have been alleviated; my children and I, like the shepherds of Arabia, when they see a storm approaching, have sought shelter in the shade of the laurel. You, my lord, have ever considered death only in the light of devotion to your country; your mind has never been touched by the mortification which sometimes afflicts those who believe themselves useless upon earth. But to your superior mind no philosophical subject is strange; and your views are taken from so great an elevation that nothing can escape you. I have ever until now dedicated my works to the memory of my father but I have requested of you, my lord, the honor of doing you homage, because your public life is an exhibition to the world of sterling virtues which alone deserve the admiration of reflecting minds.

Intrepidity personally distinguishes you amidst the brave; but this intrepidity is directed by a feeling not less sublime; the blood of the warrior, the tears of the poor, even the cares of the unfortunate are objects of your watchful humanity. You dread the sufferings of your fellow creatures, and the exalted station in which you are placed will never be able to banish sympathy from your heart. A Frenchman said of you, my lord, that to ‘the chivalry of republicanism you united the chivalry of royalty:’ in truth generosity, in whatever manner it can be displayed, appears to be natural to you.

In your intercourse with the world, you never impose restraint, by factitious formality, upon the minds of those who surround you. You might, if I may be allowed the expression, gain the hearts of a whole nation, one by one, if each individual of which it is composed, had but the happiness of a few minutes conversation with you; combined with this affability, so full of grace, your manly energy attaches to you all heroic characters.

The Swedish nation, formerly so celebrated for its exploits, and which still preserves its early reputation, cherishes in you the presage of its glory. You respect the rights of this nation, both from inclination and duty and we have beheld you under many trying circumstances, as firm in supporting the constitutional barriers, as others are impatient of their restraint.

Duty never seems to you a restraint, but a support; and it is thus that your habitual deference for the experienced wisdom of the king gives a new lustre to the power he confides to you.

Pursue, my lord, the career which offers to you so fine a futurity, and you will teach the world anew, what it seems to have forgotten, that the most enlightened wisdom sheds a glory on morality, and that the greatest heroes, far from despising, believe themselves superior to their fellow-men, only by the sacrifices which they make to them.

I am with respect, my lord,

Your royal highness’
most humble, and obedient servant,
Baroness de Stael-Holstein

I would impart consolation to the afflicted; the children of prosperity are instructed by their own experience only, and to them general reflections on most subjects appear useless: but it is not thus with the wretched: reflection is their best asylum, since separated by adversity from the distractions of the world, they fly to self-examination, and endeavor, like the invalid on the couch of pain, to find every alleviation of suffering.

Excess of misery gives birth to the idea of suicide, and this subject cannot be too thoroughly investigated: it involves the whole moral organization of man, I will endeavor to throw some new light upon the motives which lead to this action, as well as on those which prevent its perpetration I will examine the subject without prejudice or pride. We ought not to be offended with those who are so wretched as to be unable to support the burden of existence, nor should we applaud those, who sink under its weight, since, to sustain it, would be a greater proof of their moral strength.*

The opponents of suicide, feeling themselves on the ground of duty and reason, too often employ, in support of their arguments, an intolerant manner, offensive to their adversaries; and also frequently mingle unjust invective against enthusiasm, generally, with their well-merited reprobation of an unjustifiable action. It appears to me, on the contrary, that we can easily demonstrate from the principles themselves of true enthusiasm, or, in other words, from the love of pure morality, how far resignation to destiny is superior to rebellion against it.

I propose to present the question of suicide in three different points of view: I shall first examine what is the influence of suffering on the mind; secondly, I shall show, ‘what are the laws which the Christian religion impose on us in relation to suicide;’ and thirdly, I shall consider ‘in what consists the greatest moral dignity of man in this world.’

What Is the Influence of Suffering on the Mind?                                                                                           

We cannot dissemble that there is in the effect of impressions, produced by grief as much difference between individuals, as can exist relatively with genius and character. Not only the circumstances, but the manner of feeling them, differ so essentially, that people otherwise estimable may misunderstand each other in this respect; and yet, of all the limits of the understanding, the most grievous is that which prevents us from comprehending one another.

It appears to me that happiness consists in a destiny harmonizing with our faculties. Our desires are the offspring of the moment, and often are of fatal consequence to us; but our faculties are permanent, and their necessities are unceasing: hence the conquest of the world may have been as necessary to Alexander, as the possession of a cottage to a shepherd. It does not follow, however, that the human race should have served but as nourishment to the gigantic faculties of Alexander; but it may be admitted that, according to the constitution of his nature, there were no other means of happiness for him.

A capacity to love, an activity of mind, a value attached to opinion, are the sources of happiness to some and altogether productive of infelicity to others, the inflexible law of duty is the same for all, but moral strength is purely individual; and in forming an opinion of the happiness or unhappiness of those who are constituted differently from ourselves, a profound knowledge of the human heart is essential to the philosophical and just conclusion.

It appears to me then that we should never dispute the feelings of others; counsel can only operate on conduct, the laws of religion and virtue providing alike for all situations; but the causes of misery, and its intensity, vary equally with circumstances and individuals. We might as well attempt to count the waves of the sea, as to analyze the combinations of destiny and character. Conscience alone exists within us as a pure and unchangeable being, from whom we can all obtain what we all most need, the repose of the soul. The greater part of men resemble each other, not so much in their actions as in their powers, and no one capable of reflection will deny, that, in committing sins against morality, we always feel we might have avoided them. If then we admit that it is part of our condition here to endure affliction, we cannot excuse ourselves; either by the weight of this affliction, or by the acuteness of the felling which it produces. We all have within us the means of performing our duty; and what is most wonderful in moral as well as in physical nature, is, how equally and universally what is necessary to us is disturbed, while what is superfluous is diversified in a thousand ways.

Physical and moral pain are one and the same thing in their effect upon the mind; for corporeal and mental affliction are both productive of pain; but the one destroys the body, while the other regenerates the soul.

It is not enough to believe with the stoics that ‘pain is not an evil’; to submit to it with resignation, we must be convinced that it is a blessing. The least evil would be insupportable, if we considered it as purely accidental; individual irritability governing sensibility, there would be no more justice in blaming him who should destroy himself on account of the prick of a pin, than for an attack of the gout; for some slight difficulty, than for a real calamity. The smallest sensation of pain may excite rebellious dispositions in the mind, if it tend not towards its perfection; for there is more injustice in a light evil, if unnecessary, than in the heaviest affliction, if it have a noble end in view.

It is not necessary here to recur to the grand metaphysical question of the origin of evil, in the discussion of which philosophers have so vainly interested themselves. We can have no conception of free-will without admitting the possibility of evil; we can have no conception of virtue without free-will; nor of life eternal, without virtue;—this chain, the first link of which is, at the same time, incomprehensible and indispensable, ought to be considered as the condition of our being. If reflection and feeling lead us to believe that there is ever, in the ways of providence, a latent or apparent justice, we cannot consider suffering as either accidental or arbitrary. If we believe that the deity could endow us with unlimited faculties or powers, and that the infinite were thus transferable, we should have as much right to complain of some happiness withheld, as of some trouble imposed. Why should not man as well be incensed at not having always existed, as that he must cease to exist? In short, on what ground do his complaints rest? Is it against the system of the universe that he rebels, or against the part allotted to him in a system, subject to immutable laws? Affliction is one of the essential elements of the means of happiness; and it is impossible to form a conception of the one without the other. The vivacity of our desires is always in proportion to the difficulties with which they have contend; the height of our enjoyments, to the fear of losing them; the strength of our affections, to the dangers which menace the objects of our regard. In a word, the Gordian knot of pleasure and of pain can only be severed by the stroke that terminates existence. Let us submit, say the unfortunate, to the balance of good and evil which belongs to the ordinary course of events; but when we are treated as enemies by destiny we have a right to endeavor to escape its malignity: and yet the regulator which determines the result of this balance is entirely within ourselves: the same sort of life, which reduces one to despair, would fill another with joy, who is placed in a sphere of less elevated hopes. This reflection is not incompatible with what I have said as to the respect we owe to the various modes of feeling: without doubt, the happiness of one may not accord with the character of another; but resignation belongs equally to all. If there are in physical nature two opposite powers, impulse and gravity, which are the causes of the motion of the earth, it may also be asserted that the desire of action, and the necessity of submission, volition, and resignation, are the two poles of moral being, and that the equilibrium of reason is only to be found between them.

The greater part of men can scarcely comprehend more than two powers in life, destiny, and their own will, which is of itself, they believe, sufficient to influence destiny; and hence the general transition from irritation to pride. When they are in a state of irritation, they inveigh against destiny, as children beat the table against which they hurt themselves; and when they are satisfied with the events of life, the attribute them entirely to themselves, deriving a degree of complacency from the means they have employed to direct them, and considering these means as the only source of their felicity. Both these modes of judging are erroneous.

The will of man acts commonly, it is true, in concurrence with destiny; but when this destiny is the result of necessity, that is to say, when it is unalterable, it becomes the manifestation of the designs of providence towards us. A man of genius has observed that ‘necessity invigorates.’ We must rise to a great elevation of thought to adopt this expression in its full extent; but it is certain that we should always have a sort of respect for destiny. It is a power which, sooner or later, unforeseen or anticipated, seizes on a certain epoch of life and determines the course of it; but far from destiny being blind, as we are pleased to imagine it, we have reason to believe that it comprehends us thoroughly, for it scarcely ever fails to assail our inmost weaknesses. It is the secret tribunal which pronounces judgment on us, and when it may appear unjust, perhaps we alone can tell what it would intend and what it would exact.

There is no doubt of our coming forth, sensibly improved, from the trials of adversity, when we submit to them with a becoming fortitude. The greatest faculties of the soul are developed only by suffering, and this purification of ourselves restores us, after a time, to happiness; for the circle closes up again, and carries us back to those days of innocence which preceded our faults. We then abandon virtue when we fly to suicide as a refuge from misfortune; we reject the enjoyments that virtue would bestow by enabling us to triumph over our distresses. The disciples of Plato said that ‘the soul had need of a certain period of sojournment upon earth to become purified from guilty passions.’ We should, in fact, believe that the end of life is properly to renounce it. Physical nature accomplishes this work by destruction, and moral nature by sacrifice. Human existence, rightly conceived, is but the abdication of personality to gain admission into universal order. Children only comprehend themselves, young people each other an the friends who are a part of themselves; but when the presages of decay appear, we must seek consolation in general reflections, or abandon ourselves to all the terrors which the latter part of life presents; for the unfortunate or fortunate circumstances of each individual are of little consequence in comparison with the inflexible laws of nature. Old age and death, much more than our peculiar distresses, should fill us with despair; but we readily submit to an universal condition, and yet rebel against our own portion, without reflecting that the universal condition is found in each lot, and that the distinction is more apparent than real.

In treating of the moral dignity of man, I shall strenuously insist upon the difference which exists between suicide and self-devotion, that is to say, between the sacrifice of ourselves to others, or which is the same thing, to virtue; and the renunciation of existence because it is a burden to us. The motives which lead to this act change entirely the nature of it; for when we abdicate life in order to do good to others, we immolate, if I may use the expression, our body to our soul, whilst, when we destroy ourselves from impatience under misfortune, we sacrifice almost always our conscience to our passions.

It is nevertheless wrong to contend that suicide is an act of cowardice: this strained assertion never convinced any one; but we ought here to distinguish between courage and fortitude. The act of suicide implies contempt of death, but to be unable to endure suffering shows a want of fortitude. A species of frenzy is necessary to subdue in us the instinct of self-preservation, when no religious feeling demands the sacrifice. The generality of those who have unsuccessfully endeavored to destroy themselves have not renewed the attempt, because there is in suicide, as in every extravagant act of the will, a certain degree of folly, which is appeased when it nearly accomplishes the end it had in view. Unhappiness is scarcely ever absolute; its associations with our recollections or our hopes, often constitutes the greater part of it; and when we experience a lively check, our affliction frequently presents itself to our imagination under a very different aspect.

Observe, after a period of ten years, a person who has sustained some great privation, of whatever nature it may be, and you will find that he suffers and enjoys from other causes than those from which ten years ago his misery was derived. It does not, therefore, follow that his is restored to happiness; but hope and fear have changed their course in him; and of the activity of these two passions moral life is composed.

There is one cause of suicide which interests the hearts of most women: it is love. The spell of this passion is no doubt the principal cause of the errors we commit in our judgment on the question of self-destruction. We are willing that love should subjugate the highest powers of the soul, and that nothing should be beyond his empire. All sorts of enthusiasm having encountered the attacks of mocking incredulity, romances have still maintained the delusion of sentiment in those countries of the world, to which good faith has retired: but of all the miseries of love there is but one, it appears to me, which should subdue the energy of the soul; it is the death of the object we love and by whom we are beloved.

An inward horror pervades our nature when the heart with which our existence was blended rests cold in the tomb. This affliction, the only one perhaps which surpassed the strength god has given us to resist suffering, has nevertheless been considered by several moralists as easier to be supported than those in which offended pride is in any respect mingled. In fact, in the misery which is produced by the infidelity of the object of our love, though the heart receives the wound, self-love instills its poisons. Without doubt also, a sentiment nobler than self-love rends our hearts when we are obliged to relinquish the esteem we had conceived for the first object of our affections; when there remains no more of an enthusiasm so profound, than the remembrance of the delusive appearances which gave birth to it. We must, however, in strictness urge, that, in an intimate and sincere union, such as ought to exist between true and pure beings, from the moment that either is unfaithful, or that either has deceived, he becomes unworthy of the sentiment he had inspired. I do not wish by this reasoning to imitate those pedants who reduce the troubles of life to syllogisms. We suffer in a thousand ways, we suffer form various, opposite and contending feelings; and no one has a right to contest the causes of our miseries: but in all the sufferings of the soul, in which self-love has its share, it is as unwise as reprehensible to seek our own destruction: for all that partakes of vanity is necessarily fleeting and we must not accord to that which is fleeting the right to precipitate us into eternity.

A misfortune entirely free from all emotion of pride is then the only one which should lead to suicide; but for the very reason that such a misfortune originates entirely in sensibility, religion can deprive it of its bitterness. Providence, which desires not that the wounds of the human soul should be without a cure, brings relief to him whom he has afflicted beyond his strength. Often, at such a time, the wings of the angel of peace overshadow our dejected heads, and who can say that this angel is not the very object of our regret? Who can say that, touched by our tears, it has not obtained from heaven the power of watching over us?

The pains of sensibility, which self-love embitters, are necessarily moderated by time; and those of an affecting nature, without any mixture of the emotion of pride, inspire a religious disposition, which leads the soul to resignation. The most frequent causes of suicide in modern times are ruin and dishonor. A reverse of fortune, as society is constituted, produces a most acute unhappiness, which multiplies itself in a thousand different ways. The most cruel of all, however, is the loss of the rank we occupied in the world. Imagination has as much to do with the past, as with the future, and we form with our possessions an alliance, whose rupture is most grievous; but, after a time, a new situation presents a new perspective to almost all men. Happiness is so composed of relative sensations, that it is not things in themselves, but their connection with yesterday and to-morrow, which affects the imagination. If destiny or the menaces of a tyrant have led a man to apprehend a certain degree of unhappiness, and he learns that he is to be spared the half of what he dreaded, his impressions will be very different from those he would have experienced, if he had not suffered so great a terror. Destiny has almost always much to do in the composition of our miseries; we may say that he also sometimes repents as well as other sovereigns of causing too much evil.

Opinion exercises over most individuals a degree of influence whose power it is difficult to diminish: the words, ‘I am dishonored,’ affect the whole mind of a social being, and it is not possible to avoid pitying him who sinks under the weight of this misfortune; for, since he feels it so bitterly, it is, in all probability, unmerited: but yet we must range the causes of dishonor in two principal classes; those which are derived from faults with which our conscience reproaches us; and those which originate in involuntary error and are in no wise criminal.

Repentance is necessarily connected with our ideas of divine justice, for if we did not regulate our actions by this supreme standard of equity, we should experience in life nothing but discontent. We must consider existence in two points of view; either as a game, the gain or loss of which consists in the advantages of this world; or as a novicate for immortality. If we regard it as a game, we shall be able to trace in our own conduct only the consequences of true or false reasoning; if we have the life to come in view, it is intention only to which our conscience clings. The man whose views are limited to the interests of this world may suffer discontent, but repentance belongs only to the religious man; and being such, he necessarily feels that expiation is the first duty, and that conscience commands us to endure the consequences of our transgressions, to the end that we may repair them, if possible, by doing good. Merited dishonor is then, to the religious man, a just punishment, from which he believes he has no right to fly; for, although, among human actions, there may be many more perverse than suicide, there is not one which seems so formally to deprive us of the protection of god.

Our passions lead us to many culpable actions which have happiness for their end; but, in suicide, there is a renunciation of all succor from above, that cannot be reconciled with any pious disposition.

He who is truly affected by repentance will exclaim, with the prodigal son: ‘I will arise, and go to my father, and will say unto him, father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.’ With this affecting resignation would a religious being express himself, for the more criminal he believes himself to be, the less would he arrogate to himself the right to quit life, since he has not used the gift as the bestower of it exacts. As for those guilty beings who do not believe in a future existence, and who have lost their consequence in this world, suicide, according to their manner of thinking, has no other inconvenience than to deprive them of the happy chances that might yet remain for them, and each individual can estimate these chances as he chooses, from his calculation probabilities.

I believe we may affirm that unmerited dishonor is never of long duration. The influence of truth on the public is such, that patience only is requisite to restore us to our station. Time has something sacred in it, and seems to act independently of the events it embraces. It is a support for the weak and unfortunate, and, in fact, is one of those mysterious ways by which the deity manifests himself to us. The world, which is in most respects so different a thing from the individual, the world, which is a sensible being, although composed of so many stupid ones, the world, which is liberal, although follies without number are committed by those who make a part of it, the world always concludes by returning to justice, as soon as predominating and momentary circumstances have disappeared. ‘In patience possess ye your souls,’ says the gospel, and this counsel of piety is also that of reason. When we reflect on the holy writings, we find in them and admirable combination of the best precepts for conducting ourselves with success in this world, and often also the best means of obtaining it. Physical suffering, incurable infirmity, in short, all such miseries as are inseparable from corporeal existence, would seem to constitute one of the most plausible causes of suicide; and yet, scarcely ever, particularly among the moderns, does this species of misery occasion it. Miseries which are in the ordinary course of events may overcome us, but do not excite us to rebel against our condition. It is essential that irritation should be mingled with our feelings before we can be enraged against destiny, and wish to liberate ourselves from its evils, or revenge ourselves against it, as an oppressor. There is a singular kind of error in the manner in which most men consider their destiny. This error has so much influence on the impressions of the mind, that we cannot too often contemplate it under various aspects. Indeed, a community of suffering is sufficient to make us resigned to the most distressing events, and we find injustice only in those afflictions which are peculiarly our own. And yet, are not these varieties , as well as these resemblances, for the most part counterbalanced? And are they not all, I repeat it, equally comprised in the laws of nature? I shall not dwell upon the common consolations that may be derived from the hope of a change in our circumstances; there are some afflictions which are not susceptible of this sort of comfort: but I believe we may boldly affirm, that all who have resorted to an active and steady employment have found an alleviation of their distress. There is an object in all occupations, and it is an object that man constantly requires. Our faculties devour us, like the vulture of Prometheus, when they have no external cause of action, and employment exercises and directs these faculties: in short, when we possess imagination, and most people in sorrow have a great deal, we can always find renovated pleasure in the master-pieces of the human mind, either as amateurs of artists. A celebrated woman has remarked that ‘ennui is mingled in all our distresses,’ and this reflection is full profundity. True ennui, that of active minds, is the absence of all interest in what surrounds us, combined with faculties, which render this interest essential to us; it is thirst without the possibility of quenching it. Tantalus is a just image of the soul in this state. Occupation gives a zest to existence, and the fine arts contain, at the same time, the originality of particular objects, and the grandeur of universal ideas. They preserve our relation with nature; we might love her without the aid of these charming mediators, but they teach us the better to appreciate her.


What Are the Laws which the Christian Religion Imposes on Us, in Relation to Suicide?

When the ancient man of sorrows, Job, was stricken with every evil, when he had lost his fortune and his children, and when frightful physical afflictions made him suffer a thousand deaths, his wife advised him to renounce life. ‘Curse god,’ said she, ‘and die.’—‘What,’ replied he, ‘I have received good at the hand of god, and shall I not receive evil?’ And in whatsoever depth of depair he was plunged, he was resigned to his fate, and his patience was rewarded. It is supposed that Job preceded Moses; he existed, at least, long before the coming of Jesus Christ, and at a time when the hope of the soul’s immortality was not yet assured to mankind. What would he then have thought at the present time? We see in the bible, men, such as Samson and the Maccabees, who devoted themselves to death, to accomplish a design they believed to be noble and salutary; but in no part do we find examples of suicide, of which disgust to life or its troubles is the only cause; in no part has that species of suicide, which is only a desertion from destiny, been considered as possible. It has been frequently asserted, that there is no passage in the gospel which indicates a formal disapprobation of this act. Jesus Christ, in his discourses, rather ascends to the principles of action than enters into a particular application of the law; but is it not enough, that the general spirit of the gospel tends to hallow resignation?

‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ said Jesus Christ, ‘for they shall be comforted. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, for my sake.’ Jesus Christ every where announces that his mission is, to teach man that the design of misfortune is the purification of the soul, and that celestial happiness is obtained by pious endurance of our miseries on earth. The interpretation of the doubtful meaning of affliction, is the special intention of the doctrine of Jesus Christ.

We find many good things respecting social morality in the Hebrew prophets and in the Pagan philosophers; but it was to teach charity, patience, and faith, that Jesus Christ descended upon earth; and these three virtues all alike tend to the relief of the unhappy. The first, charity, teaches us our duty towards them; the second, patience, teaches them to what consolations they ought to have recourse, and the third faith, announces to them their recompense. Most of the precepts of the gospel would want foundation if suicide were permitted; for, from misfortune we learn the necessity of appealing to heaven, and the insufficiency of the goods of this world is what, above all, renders another life necessary.

We must not disdain, in whatever misery we may be plunged, the primitive gifts of our creator, life and nature. A social being places too much importance upon the tissue of circumstances of which his individual history is composed. Existence is in itself a marvelous thing; the happiness of the savage is derived from it alone; sick people often pray for nothing else; the prisoner considers liberty as the supreme good; the blind man would willingly give all he possessed for the blessing of sight; the climates of the south, which give life to colors and develop perfumes, produce an undefinable impression; the consolations of philosophy have less empire over us than the enjoyments we derive from the spectacle of heaven and earth. Among our means of happiness then the power of reflection is most valuable. We are so contracted in ourselves, so many things agitate and wound us, that we have constantly need to plunge into this boundless sea of thoughts, where we must, as in the Styx, become invulnerable, or altogether resigned.

No one will venture to say that we can endure every calamity we are subjected to in this world, nor will any one dare to place such confidence in his own strength as to make this assertion. There are but few beings endowed with such superior faculties that despair has not reached them more than once; and life appears but as a protracted shipwreck, the fragments of which are friendship, love and glory. The borders of the stream of time are covered with them; but if we have preserved the internal harmony of the soul, we may yet hold communion with the works of the deity.

The mercy of heaven, the stillness of death, the beauty of the universe, which was not designed to show man his own insignificance, but as an earnest of better days; some noble thoughts, always the same; are like the harmony of creation, and restore us to tranquility when we are accustomed to comprehend them. From these sources the hero and the poet draw their inspirations; why then would not some drops from the cup, which elevates them above humanity, be salutary for all?

We accuse destiny of malignity because its blows are always aimed at the tenderest part of us. This is not attributable to the malignity of destiny but to the impetuosity of our desires, which precipitates us against the obstacles we encounter, as we run deeper upon the sword of our adversary in the ardor of combat: and besides, the instruction we should receive from misfortune necessarily applies to that part of our character which stands most in need of reproof. We cannot admit the belief of god without supposing that he directs in its influence upon men: we cannot then consider this destiny as a blind power; it remains to be considered whether he who governs it has given to man the liberty of submitting to or flying from it. I shall examine this in the second part of these reflections.

It is seldom that individuals, in the intoxication of prosperity, preserve a holy respect for sacred things. The allurements of this world are so brilliant as to darken all other joys, even the glory of a future existence. A German philosopher, disputing with his friends, once said, ‘To obtain such a thing, I would give millions of years of my eternal felicity,’ and he was singularly moderate in the sacrifice he offered; for temporal enjoyments have generally much more activity than religious hopes; and spiritual life, or Christianity, which is the same thing, would not exist, if sorrow dwelt not in the heart of man. Premeditated suicide is incompatible with Christian faith, because this faith rests chiefly on the different duties of resignation. With respect to suicide resulting from a moment of delirium, from an excess of despair, it is not probable the divine legislator of men had occasion to notice it among the Jews, who rarely offered examples of this sort of offence. He unceasingly combated, in the Pharisees, the vices of hypocrisy, of unbelief, and of hardness of heart. Indeed, he appears to have considered the faults of the passions as the disease of the soul, and not as its habitual state, and always to have appealed rather to the general spirit of morality than to the precepts which grow out of circumstances.

Jesus Christ constantly directed man to occupy himself with life as it has relation to immortality only. ‘Then, why take ye thought for raiment,’ said he, ‘consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin; yet Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these.’ It is not slothfulness nor indifference that Jesus Christ inculcates by this passage, but a sort of calm which would be useful even as it regards the interests of this world. Warriors call this sentiment confidence in their good fortune; religious men, the hope of divine assistance; but both the one and the other find in this internal disposition of the soul a support, which, while it enables them to form a clearer judgment of the circumstances of this life, at the same time affords the means of escaping from them. We believe we can obtain our emancipation from the tyranny of human events by determining to destroy ourselves if we do not attain the end of our desires. Under this idea, we consider ourselves as entirely at our own disposal; and free to relinquish life when we are no longer content with the condition of it. If the gospel accorded with this manner of thinking, we should find in it some lessons of prudence; but all those which relate to virtue would have a very limited application, for virtue consists only in the preference we give to others, that is to say, to our duty over our personal interests: now, when we renounce life, merely because we are not happy, we prefer ourselves to all the world, and become, if I may be allowed the expression, egotists in suicide.

Of all the religious arguments which have been adduced against suicide, that which has been most frequently reiterated, is that it is formally comprised in the prohibition expressed by the commandment of god: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Without doubt, this argument might also be admitted; but as it is impossible to consider the suicide in the same light with the assassin, the true point of view of this question is, that happiness not being the end of human life, man ought to aim at perfection, and consider his duties as necessarily connected with his sufferings. Marcus Aurelius said that ‘there was no more crime in leaving him than a room that smokes:’ certainly, if it were so, instances of suicide would be still more frequent than they are; for it is difficult, when the illusion of youth is past, to reflect on the course of things, and still to preserve our attachment to existence. We might adhere to this existence, through fear of leaving it; but if this motive alone retained us upon earth, all those who have conquered fear, by the force of military habits, all those whose imaginations are more terrified by the phantom of life than by that of death, would spare themselves their latter days, which repeat in so melancholy a tone the brilliant airs of our youth.

J. J. Rousseau, in his letter in favor of suicide, says, ‘Why, if we are allowed to cut off a leg, are we not also permitted to take away our lives?’ Has not the will of god given us the one as well as the other?’ A passage of the gospel seems to reply texturally to this sophism: ‘If thy right hand offend thee,’ says Jesus Christ ‘cut it off. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.’ What the gospel here says, applies to temptation, and not suicide; but nevertheless it is sufficient to refute the argument of J. J. Rousseau. Man is permitted to seek a cure for all his evils; but it is forbidden him to destroy his being, or in other words, the power he has received of choosing between good and evil. He exists by this power, he ought to be regenerated by it, and to this principle of action, to which the exercise of free will entirely belongs, every thing is subordinate.

Jesus Christ, in encouraging man to endure the pains of life, repeats unceasingly the efficacy of prayer. ‘Knock,’ says he, ‘and it shall be opened unto you; ask and it shall be given unto you.’ But the hopes he presents relate not to the events of this life; it is the disposition of the soul upon which prayer exerts the greatest influence. Peace of mind and the prosperities of the world are both alike denominated by the word happiness; and yet, no two things are so different as these sources of enjoyment. The philosophers of the eighteenth century have founded morality on the positive advantages it procures in this world, and have considered it as personal interest, well understood. Christians have fixed the centre of our greatest enjoyments in the bottom of the soul. Philosophers promise temporal benefits to those who are virtuous; they are right, in some respects; for, in the ordinary course of things, it is very probable that the blessings of this life will accompany a course of moral conduct; but if our confidence in this should be deceived, despair would then be lawful; for, considering virtue only as a speculation, when it is unsuccessful we may abandon existence. Christianity, on the contrary, places happiness above all, in the impressions we receive from conscience. Have we not experienced, independently of religious feelings, and our internal disposition has not always agreed with our circumstances, and that we have often felt more or less happy, than we ought to be, after an examination of our situation? If the mere force of the mobility of our nature is sufficient to produce such an effect, how much more power ought the holy and secret operation of piety to have upon the soul! How often have those virtuous beings whom affliction has visited, found an unexpected calm in the bottom of their hearts! An unknown celestial music is heard in the desert, and seems to announce that the fountain will soon spring, even from the bosom of the rock.

When we have beheld Louis XVI, the purest and most respectable victim that faction could immolate, led to the scaffold, we cannot but demand what relief the hand of God stretched forth to him in the abyss of misery? Of a sudden the voice of an angel is heard, who under the form of a minister of the church, says to him, Son of Saint Louis, rise to heaven?’ His worldly grandeur, his heavenly hopes were all united in these simple words. They uplifted him, by recalling to him his illustrious race from the debasement into which man had wished to plunge him; they invoked the shades of his ancestors, who, without doubt, already stretched forth their crowns to welcome the coming of the august saint to heaven. Perhaps, at this moment, the eye of faith made him no longer. He approached the limits of time, and our calculation of its hours concerned him no longer. Who knows with what blissful emotion a single moment of tender reflection at that time filled his soul!

While the blood-stained executioner bound those hands, which has wielded the scepter of France, the same missionary of god said to his king, ‘Sire, it was thus that our lord was led to death.’ What aid did he not impart to the martyr, by presenting to his view his divine model! In fact, is not the most glorious example of the sacrifice of life the basis of the Christian’s belief? And does not this example mark the difference which exists between the martyr and the suicide? The martyr serves the cause of virtue, by yielding up his blood for the instruction of the world: the suicide perverts all idea of courage, and scandalizes even death itself. The martyr teaches man the power of conscience, it subdues the most powerful physical instinct; the suicide also proves the power of will, over instinct, but it is that of an unsteady charioteer, who can no longer hold the reins, but precipitates himself into the abyss, instead of conducting in safety to the goal. Indeed, in committing this terrible act, the soul is wrought to a pitch of frenzy, which concentrates, in an instant, an eternity of pain.

The last scene of the life of Jesus Christ appears destined, above all, to confound those who believe they have the right to destroy themselves in order to escape misfortune. The dread of suffering seized upon him, who had voluntarily devoted himself to the death, as well as to the life of man. He prayed a long time to his father, on the mount of Olives, and his soul was exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death. ‘My father,’ cried he, ‘if it be possible let this cup pass from me!’ Three times he repeated this prayer, his countenance bathed in tears. All our pains had passed into his divine being. He feared, like us, the outrageous of man; like us, perhaps, he regretted those he had loved, his mother and his disciples; like us, and more than us, perhaps, he loved this fruitful earth, and the celestial pleasures of an active beneficences, for which returned thanks to his father every day. But not being able to avert the cup to which he was destined, he cried, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done, O, my father,’ and replaced himself in the hands of his enemies. What more would we seek in the gospel on resignation in affliction, and the duty of supporting it with courage and patience? The resignation we obtain from religious faith is a species of moral suicide, and it is in that it so much differs from suicide, properly so called, for the renunciation of self has for its end the sacrifice of ourselves to our fellow creatures; while suicide, caused by a disgust of life, is only the bloody mourning of personal happiness. Saint Paul says, ‘She that liveth in pleasure, is dead while she liveth.’ In every line of the holy writings we see this great misunderstanding between the beings of time and those of eternity; the first make life consist in what the last regard as death. It is then plain that the opinion of beings of time consecrates the suicide, while that of the beings of eternity exalts the martyr: for he who grounds morality on the happiness it may produce upon earth, hates life when it does not realize its promises; whilst he who makes true felicity consist in the internal emotion, which sentiments and thoughts in communication with the deity excite, can be happy in spite of men, and, if I may use the expression, in defiance of destiny. When the experience of existence has taught us the vanity of our own strength, and the almighty power of god, it often works in the soul a sort of regeneration, the delights of which are inexpressible. Then it is that we become accustomed to judge ourselves, as we judge of others; to place our conscience as a third person between our personal interests and those of our adversaries; we are passive as to our destiny, certain that we cannot direct it; we are passive also as regards our self-love, certain that it is not ourselves but the world that casts our character: we are passive, in fine, as to that hardest of all human trials, the wrongs and injuries of friendship; whether it be by recollection of our own imperfections, or by confiding to the tomb of the being who has best loved us our most secret thoughts; or, finally, by raising towards heaven the sensibility it has bestowed upon us. How great it the difference between this religious denial of terrestrial strife, and the frenzy which leads to suicide as a refuge from suffering. The renunciation of ourselves is in every respect opposed to suicide.

Besides, how can we be assured that suicide will deliver us from the evils which pursue us? What certainty can atheists have of annihilation or philosophers of the mode of existence nature has reserved for them? While Socrates taught to the Greek the immortality of the soul, many of his disciples committed suicide, greedy to taste of this intellectual life, of which the confused images of paganism had not given them the idea. The emotion excited by so novel a doctrine led their ardent imaginations astray; but, can Christians, to whom the promises of a future life have been extended only in connection with menaces of punishment to the guilty, can they hope that suicide will be the means of extricating them from the troubles which overwhelm them? If the soul survives death, will not the sentiment which filled it entirely, whatever may be its nature, still make a part of it? Who among us knows what connection is established between the recollections of earth and celestial enjoyments? Is it for us to draw near, by our own resolution, to this unknown region, from which, at the same time a secret dread repulse us? How can we annihilate, by the caprice of our will, (and I denominate thus every act not founded upon duty) the work of God in us? How shall we determine our death, when we had no power over our birth? How answer for our eternal destiny, when the most trifling actions of this brief existence have often filled us with the most bitter regret? Who will dare believe himself wiser and stronger than destiny, and venture so say to it—this is too much?

Suicide draws us from nature as well as from its author. Natural death is almost always softened by the enfeebling of our strength, and the exaltation of virtue sustains us in the sacrifice of life to our duty: but the suicide seems to spring with hostile arms beyond the borders of the tomb, and defies alone the images of horror and of darkness.

Oh! What despair is required for such an act! May pity, the most profound pity, be granted to him who is guilty of it! But, at least, let him not mingle human pride with it. Let not the wretch believe himself the more a man, for being the less a Christian, and let a reflecting being know ever where to place the true moral dignity of man.

Of the Moral Dignity of Man

Almost every individual aims here below either at his physical well-being or at his consideration in the world, and the greater part of mankind at both united: but consideration, in the estimation of some, consists in the ascendancy which power and fortune bestow, and in that of others, in the respect which talents and virtue inspire. Those who seek riches and power are also desirous to be thought possessed of moral qualities, and above all, of superior faculties; but this last is a secondary end, which must give place to the first; for a certain depraved knowledge of the human race, teaches us, that the solid advantages of life command the interests of men still more than their esteem.

We will set aside, as foreign from our subject, those whose ambition has only power and riches for its end; but we will examine with attention in what the moral dignity of man consists; and this examination will lead us necessarily to judge the action of self-destruction under two opposite points of view; the sacrifice inspired by virtue, and the disgust which results from mistaken passions. We have opposed, in respect to religion, the martyr to the suicide; we may also, in respect to moral dignity, present the contrast of devotion to duty, with rebellion against our condition.

Devotion generally leads us rather to submit to death, than to be instrumental in bringing it upon ourselves; yet, there were among the ancients suicides from devotion. Curtis, precipitating himself to the depth of the abyss, that he might cause it to close; Cato, stabbing himself to teach the world that there still existed a soul free under Caesar’s dominion, did not destroy themselves to escape from misery; the one wished to save his country, and the other gave the universe an example whose ascendancy still continues. Cato passed the night preceding his death in reading the Phaedon of Socrates, and the Phaedon explicitly condemns suicide, but this great citizen knew that he did not die for himself but for the cause of liberty; and, according to circumstances, this cause may teach us to await death, like Socrates, or to be ourselves the instrument of it, like Cato.

The characteristic of the true moral dignity of man, is devotion to duty. What we do for ourselves may have a sort of grandeur which excites surprise; but admiration is only due to the sacrifice of selfish feeling, under whatever from in may appear. Elevation of soul constantly tends to free us from what is purely individual, for the purpose of uniting us to the great views of the creator of the universe. Love and reflection comfort and exalt us only by withdrawing us from all egotistical impressions. Devotion and enthusiasm infuse a purer air into our breasts. Self-love, irritation, impatience, are the enemies against which conscience obliges us to combat, and the tissue of our lives is almost entirely composed of the continual action and reaction of internal strength against external circumstances, and of external circumstances against internal strength. Conscience is the true standard of the greatness of man, but it has only a claim to our admiration in the generous being, who opposes duty himself, and can sacrifice himself when duty commands him to do so.

Genius and talent can produce great effects upon this earth; but when the object of their exercise is the personal ambition of him who possesses them, they no longer constitute the divine nature of man. They only serve for address, for prudence, for all those worldly qualities, the type of which is found in animals, although the perfection of them belongs to man. The paw of the fox, and the pen of him who barters his opinion for his interest, are one and the same thing in respect to moral dignity. The man of genius who serves himself at the expense of the happiness of his fellow-creatures, whatever eminent faculties he may be endowed with, acts always with regard to self; and in this respect the principle of his conduct is the same with that of animals. What distinguishes conscience from instinct is sentiment and the knowledge of duty, and duty always consists in the sacrifice of self to others. The whole problem of moral life is included in this principle; the whole dignity of the human being is in proportion to its strength, not only against death, but against the interests of existence. The other impulse, that is to say, that which overthrows the obstacles opposed to our desires, has success for its recompense, as well as its end; but it is not more wonderful to make use of our intelligence to subject others to our passions, than to employ our feet in walking, or our hands in taking, and, in the estimate of moral qualities, it is the motive of actions which alone determines their worth.

Hegesippus of Cyrene, a disciple of Aristippus, discoursed in favor of suicide as well as sensuality. He contended that man should have no object but pleasure in this world; but as it is very difficult to insure our own enjoyments, he advised death to those who could not obtain them. This doctrine is one of those by which we can best determine the motives of suicide, and it evinces the species of egotism which mingles, as I have before observed, in the very act by which we would annihilate ourselves.

A Swedish professor, named Robeck, wrote a long work upon suicide, and killed himself after having composed it: he says in his book, that we should encourage a contempt of life, even to suicide. Do not the most profligate also despise life? Every thing consists in the sentiment to which we make the sacrifice. Suicide, regarding only self, which we have carefully distinguished from the sacrifice of existence to virtue, proves but one thing in point of courage, which is, that the will of the soul overcomes physical instinct: thousands of soldiers afford constant evidence of this truth. Animals, it is said, never kill themselves. Actions, which are the result of reflection, are incompatible with their nature; they appear to be enchained but the present, ignorant of the future, and gathering only habits from the past: but as soon as their passions become roused, they brave pain, and this greatest pain which we term death; of which, without doubt, they have not the least idea. The courage of a great many men also partakes of this want of thought. Robeck was wrong in extolling the contempt of life so highly. There are two ways of sacrificing life, either because we give duty the preference, or because we give our passions this preference, in not wishing to live when we have lost the hope of happiness. This last sentiment cannot merit esteem: but to fortify ourselves by our own thoughts, in the midst of the reverses of life; to make ourselves a defense against ourselves, in opposing the calm of conscience to the irritation of temperament: this is true courage, in comparison with which, that which springs from instinct, is very little, and that which is the fruit of self-love, still less. Some people pretend, that there are circumstances in which, feeling ourselves a burden upon others, we may make a duty of ridding them of the encumbrance. One of the great means of introducing errors in morality is, to fancy situations, to which there would be nothing to reply, if it were not that they do not exist. Who is so unfortunate as to find no fellow-creature to whom he may impart consolation? Who is so unhappy, that by his patience and his resignation, he may not give an example to move the soul, and give birth to sentiments, that the best precepts have never been able to inspire. The half of life is its decline: what has then been the intention of the creator in presenting this melancholy perspective to man, to man whose imagination has need of hope, and who counts as nothing what he has, except as the means of obtaining yet more! It is clear that the creator has willed that mortal man should obtain a mastery over self, and that he should commence this great act of dis-interestedness long before the degradation his strength should render it more easy to him.

When you reach the age of maturity, you are already in every thing reminded of your death. Do you marry your children? You make an estimate yourself of the fortune they may have when you shall be no more. Paternal duty consists in a continual devotion; and as soon as children attain the age of reason, almost all the enjoyments they afford are grounded on the sacrifice we make to them. If then happiness were the only end of life, we should destroy ourselves as soon as we cease to be young, as soon as we descend the mountain, whose summit appeared environed with so many brilliant illusions.

A man of wit, who was complimented on the fortitude with which he had supported great reverses, replies ‘I have sufficient consolation in being only twenty five years old.’ In fact, there are very few griefs more bitter than the loss of youth. Man accustoms himself to it by degrees, it will be said. Without doubt, time is an ally of reason, and weakens the resistance it meets with in us; but where is the impetuous soul, which is not irritated at the approaches of old age? Do the passions always decay with the faculties? Do we not often see the spectacle of the punishment of Mezentius renewed by the union of a soul still alive and a ruined body, inseparable enemies? Of what use would this sad herald be, which nature causes to precede dissolution, if it were not ordained that we should exist without happiness, and abdicate each day, flower after flower, the crown of life.

Savages, having no idea of the religious or philosophical destiny of man, believe they perform a duty to their parents by depriving them of life when they become old; this act is founded on the same principle as suicide. It is certain that happiness, in the acceptation given it by the passions, that the enjoyments of self-love at least, exist but in a small degree for old age; but it is this, which , by the development of moral dignity, seems to announce the approach of another life, as in the long days of the north, the twilight of the evening is confounded with the dawn of the ensuing day. I have seen these venerable countenances absorbed entirely with the future; they seem to announce, as a prophet, the old man who no longer interests himself with the remainder of his life, but is regenerated, by the elevation of his soul, as if he had already passed the barriers of the tomb. It is thus we must arm ourselves against misfortune; it is thus that in the strength of life itself, destiny often gives the signal of this detachment from existence, that time sooner or later exacts from us. ‘You have very humble thoughts,’ some men will say, convinced that pride consists in what we exact from destiny, and from others; while, on the contrary, it consists in what we exact from ourselves. These very men contrast Christianity with the philosophy of the ancients, and pretend that their doctrine was much more favorable to energy of character, than that whose foundation is resignation: but certainly we must not confound resignation to the will of God with condescension to the power of man. Those heroic citizens of antiquity, who would have endured death rather than slavery, were capable of a pious submission to the power of heaven; while modern writers, who pretend that Christianity weakens the soul, could very well bend, notwithstanding their apparent strength, to tyranny, with more suppleness than a feeble but Christian-like old man.

Socrates, that saint of sages, refused to make his escape from prison after he was condemned to death. He believed he ought to set an example of obedience to the magistrates of his country, although they were unjust to him. Does not this sentiment belong to the true firmness of character? What greatness likewise was there not in that philosophical discourse on the immortality of the soul, continued so calmly, even to the very moment when the poison was brought to him! For two thousand years, men of profound thought, heroes, poets, and artists, have consecrated the death of Socrates by their praise; but the thousands of instances of suicide, caused by disgust and ennui, with which the annals of every corner of the world are filled, what traces have they left in the remembrance of posterity?

If the ancients were proud of Socrates, Christians, even without including the martyrs, can present a great number of example of this noble strength of mind, in comparison with which the irritation or the depression, which leads us to destroy ourselves, is deserving only of pity. Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of Henry VIII., during a whole year of close confinement in the tower of London, refused day after day, the offers that an all-powerful king made him, to return to his service, if he would suppress the scruples of conscience which withheld him. Thomas More know how to confront death during a year: and to abandon life, still loving it, re-double the greatness of the sacrifice. A celebrated writer, he loved those intellectual occupations which fill every hour with a still increasing interest. A beloved daughter capable of appreciating the genius of her father, diffused an habitual charm throughout his household; he was in a dungeon, through the grates of which only a glimmering light, broken by the dark bars, could penetrate. While near this horrible abode, a delicious estate on the verdant borders of the Thames offered to him the union of every pleasure that the affection of his family and philosophical studies could impart. Nevertheless, he was immoveable; the scaffold could not intimidate him: his health, cruelly impaired, weakened not his resolution; he found strength in that fire of the soul, which is inexhaustible because it is eternal. He met death because it was his choice, sacrificing happiness, with life, to conscience; immolating every enjoyment to this sentiment of duty, the greatest wonder of moral nature; that which fertilizes the heart, as, in physical order, the sun enlightens the world. England, the birth-place of this virtuous man, where so many other citizens have so unostentatiously sacrificed their lives to virtue, England, I say, is nevertheless the country in which suicide is most frequently committed: and we are with reason, astonished that a nation, in which religion exercises so noble an empire, should offer the example of such an aberration: but they, who represent the English as cold in character, suffer themselves to be entirely deceived by the reserve of their manner. The English character, in general, is very active, and even impetuous; their admirable constitution, which develops the moral faculties in the highest degree, is of itself able to sustain their need of action and reflection; monotony of existence does not suit them, although they often inflict it upon themselves; they then diversify, by the exercises of the body, the sort of life which to us appears uniform.

No nation loves enterprise so much as the English, and from one end of the world to the other, from the falls of the Rhine, to the cataracts of the Nile, if anything singular and daring is attempted, it is by an Englishman. Extraordinary wagers, sometimes even blamable excesses, are a proof of the vehemence of their character. Their respect for all laws, that is to say, for moral law, for political law, and the laws of decorum, represses the outward indications of their natural ardor; but it does not the less exist; and when circumstances do not give it nourishment, when ennui takes possession of their lively imaginations, it produces incalculable ravages.

It is also maintained, that the climate of England tends particularly to melancholy: I cannot judge of it, for the sky of liberty has always appeared to me purer than any other; but I cannot think that we ought to attribute the frequent examples of suicide altogether to this physical cause. The climate of the north is much less agreeable than that of England, and yet they are less subject to disgust of life, because the mind has there less need of impulse and variety. Another cause also which renders suicide more frequent in England is the extreme importance which is attached to public opinion: as soon as a man’s reputation is impaired, life becomes insupportable to him. This great dread of censure is certainly a very salutary restraint for most men; but there is something still more sublime in having an asylum in ourselves, and there to find, as in a sanctuary, the voice of God inviting us to repent of our faults, or recompensing us for our secret good intentions.

Suicide is very rare among the people of the south. The air they breathe attaches them to life; the empire of public opinion is less absolute in a country where there is less need of society; the enjoyments of nature suffice for the rich as well as the poor; there is something in the spring of Italy which communicates happiness to every being.

Germany furnishes many examples of suicide, but the causes are various, and often whimsical, as is natural amongst a people, where a metaphysical enthusiasm prevails, which has yet no fixed object nor useful end. The defects of the Germans are much more the result of their situation, than of their character, and they will no doubt correct them, when there shall exist among them a political state of things, that will call into action men worthy of being citizens.

An event that happened recently at Berlin, may give an idea of the singular exaltation of which the Germans are susceptible.* The particular motives, which could lead any two individuals astray, are of little importance; but the enthusiasm with which an act has been spoken of, which ought rather to sue for indulgence, merits the most serious attention. If two persons, profoundly unhappy, had destroyed themselves after imploring the commiseration of sensible beings, and recommending themselves to the prayers of the pious, no one could have refused a tear to grief, that had driven them to distraction, whatever had been the species of folly to which it prompted. But can any one represent a mutual assassination as the sublime of reason, of religion, and of love! Can we give the name of virtue to the conduct of a woman, who voluntarily absolves herself from the duties of daughter, wife, and mother,—to that of a man who lends her his courage, thus to get rid of life!

What! This woman has sufficient confidence in the action she is committing, to write before she dies, ‘that she will watch over her daughter fro heaven:’ and while the righteous often tremble on the bed of death, she feels assured of celestial happiness! Two beings said to be estimable, introduce religion as a third, into the most bloody of actions! Two Christians bring murder into comparison with the communion, by leaving open beside them the canticle, chanted by the faithful, when they meet together to offer up their vows of obedience to the divine model of patience and resignation! What delirium in the woman, and what an abuse of faculties in the man! For must he not have regarded himself as an assassin, although he had obtained the consent of the wretched being he destroyed? Did the ever-fluctuating will of a human being give to a fellow creature the right of infringing the eternal principles of justice and humanity! He killed himself, it will be said, almost at the same moment with his friend; but can any one believe he has so ferocious a right over the life of another, at the same time also that he takes away his own!

And had this man, who wished to die, no country? Could he not have fought for it? Was there no noble or perilous enterprise in which he might have set a glorious example? What is that he has given? He did not expect, I imagine, that mankind would one day agree to renounce, in the sight of heaven, the gift of life; and yet, what other consequence could be drawn from the suicide of these two persons, who, as is supposed, knew no other misfortune than that of existence?

What then: there remained to these faithful friends a year perhaps, at least a day, to see and hear each other, and they voluntarily destroyed this happiness. One of them was capable of deforming those features in which he had read noble thoughts; the other no longer wished to hear the voice which had excited them in her soul; and every thing descriptive of hatred they called love! The most perfect innocence, we are assured, was mingled with it; is this enough to justify so barbarous a weakness? And what advantage do not such delusions give to those who consider enthusiasm as an evil! True enthusiasm should be the companion of reason, because it is the heat that develops it. Can there exist opposition between two qualities natural to the soul, and which are both rays of the same fire? When we say that reason is irreconcilable with enthusiasm, it is because we put calculation in the place of reason, and folly in the place of enthusiasm. There is reason in enthusiasm, and enthusiasm in reason, whenever they spring from nature and are without any mixture of affectation.

We are astonished at discovering affectation and vanity in a suicide; those sentiments, so contemptible even in this life, what do they not become in the presence of death? It appears that nothing is so profound, nor so powerful, as to prove a barrier against the most terrible of acts: but man has so much difficulty in picturing to himself the end of his existence, that he associates even with the tomb the most miserable interests of this world. In fact, we cannot avoid discerning sentimental affectation on the one side, and philosophical vanity on the other, in the manner in which the double suicide at Berlin was accomplished. The mother sends her daughter to an entertainment the night before she intended to kill herself, as if the death of a mother ought to be considered as a festival by her child, and as if it were already necessary to fill her young heart with the most false impressions of a bewildered imagination! This mother clothes herself in new attire as a holy victim; in her letter to her family she enters into a minute detail of household affairs, in order to show her indifference as to the act she is about to commit; indifference, great God, in disposing of herself without thy order! In passing from life to death without the aid of duty or nature to overleap the abyss!

The man, who, about to kill his friend, solemnizes a festival with her, and excites himself by songs and liquors, as it he feared the return of just and reasonable emotions: this man, I say, does he not resemble an author destitute of genius, who has recourse to a real catastrophe to produce effect she could not attain in fiction! True superiority of every kind has nothing of caprice in it: it is a more energetic and profound intensity in the impressions which the mass of mankind experiences. Genius is, in many respects, popular; that is to say, it has points of contact with the manner in which most people fell. It is not thus, with a bombastic mind, or a disordered imagination: those who torment themselves to attract public attention, by withdrawing it from others, fancy they have made discoveries in the unexplored regions of the human heart. They go so far as to imagine that what is revolting to the feelings of the greater part of the world is of a more elevated character than that which touches and captivates them. What a gigantic vanity is that which places us, if I may so speak, out of our kind. The eloquence and the inspiration of genius revives what had often existed in the hears of the most obscured individuals, and subdues their apathy or vulgar interests. Great minds, by their writings or their actions, some times scatter the ashes which covered the sacred fire: but to create, so to speak, a new world, in which it will be virtuous to abandon our duties; religious, to rebel against divine authority; affectionate, to immolate what is dear to us; is the melancholy result of sentiments without harmony, of faculties without force, and of a desire of that celebrity, to the attainment of which, the gifts of nature are not subsidiary.

I should not have taken the pains to dwell upon an act of madness, which may be excused by peculiar circumstances, of the details of which we are to a certain extent ignorant, if the event had not found apologists in Germany. The taste of German writers for the spirit of hypothesis is found in almost all the relations of life; they cannot be prevailed upon to devote all the powers of the soul to simple and acknowledged truths; it may be said they are as ambitious to make innovations in sentiment and conduct as in literature. Yet physical nature invents nothing better than the sun, the sea, forests, and rivers. Why then should not the affections of the heart also be always the same in their principle although varied in their effects? Is there not much more soul in what is understood by all, than in these human creations, invented, so to speak, like a fiction made at pleasure?

The Germans are endowed with most excellent qualities, and most extensive understandings; but it is from books the greater part of them are formed, and the result is a habit of analysis and sophistry, a certain research after ingenuity, which effects the manly decision of their conduct. The energy that knows not where to employ itself, inspires the most extravagant resolutions: but when they shall be able to consecrate their powers to the independence of their country, when they shall be regenerated as a nation, and thus reanimate the heart of Europe, paralyzed by slavery, we shall hear no more of sickly sentimentality; of literary suicides; of abstracted commentaries on subjects which shock the soul; they must then imitate those strong and hardy people of antiquity, whose character, constant upright, and resolute, never suffered them to undertake any thing arduous without accomplishing it; who considered it as pusillanimous for a citizen to shrink from a patriotic resolution, as for a soldier to fly on the day of battle.

The gift of existence is a constant miracle; the thoughts and feelings, which compose it, have something so sublime in them, that we cannot, without astonishment, contemplate our being by the aid of the faculties of this being. Shall we then squander, in a moment of impatience and ennui, the breath by which we have felt love, recognized genius, and adored the deity? Shakespeare says, in speaking of suicide,

—‘And then, what’s brave, what’s noble,

Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,

And make death proud to take us.’

In short, if we are incapable of that Christian resignation, which makes us submit to the ordeal of life, at least we should return to the classical beauty of character of the ancients, and make glory our divinity, when we do not feel ourselves able to sacrifice this glory itself to the highest of all virtues.

We believe we have shown that suicide, whose end is, to rid ourselves of life, carries with it no character of devotion to duty, and cannot, of course, merit the name of enthusiasm.

Genius, and even courage, are only worthy of commendation when they tend to this devotion, which is able to produce greater miracles than genius. We have seen the greatest ability overcome, but the combination of religious and patriotic sentiment never is subdued. There is nothing truly great without the mixture of some virtue; every other rule of judgment necessarily leads to error. The events of this world, however important they may appear to us, are sometimes moved by the smallest springs, and chance has much to do with them. But there is neither littleness nor chance in a generous sentiment; whether it impel us to offer up life, or only exact the sacrifice of a day; whether it win a diadem, or be lost in oblivion; whether it inspire master-pieces of art, or prompt: to obscure benefits, is of no consequence; it is still a generous sentiment, and it is by this standard alone that man ought to admire the words and actions of man.

There are examples of suicide in the French nation, but we cannot generally attribute them to the melancholy of their character, nor to the elevation of their ideas. Positive evils have led some Frenchmen to this act, and they have committed it with intrepidity, but also with the thoughtlessness which often characterize them. Nevertheless, the multitudes of emigrants, which the revolution produced, have supported the most cruel privations with a sort of equanimity, of which no other nation would have been capable. Their genius disposes them more to action than to reflection, and this manner of life diverts them from the troubles of existence. What cost most to Frenchmen is separation from their country; and, indeed, what a country was theirs before faction had rent, before despotism had degraded it! What a country should we not see regenerated, if it were the voice of the nation that disposed of it? Imagination paints to us this beautiful France, which would welcome us under its azure heavens;—those friends who would melt with tenderness in beholding us again;—those recollections of youth, those traces of our relatives we should find at every step: and this return appears to us like a terrestrial resurrection; like another life granted to us here below:—but, if celestial goodness has not reserved for us this happiness, wherever we may be, we will offer up our prayers for this country, which will be so glorious, if it ever learns to appreciate liberty, or, in other words, the political guarantee of justice.

Notice of Lady Jane Gray

Lady Jane Gray was grand-niece of Henry VIII, by her grandmother Mary, sister of that king, and widow of Louis XII; she married Lord Guildford, son of the duke of Northumberland, who caused Edward, son of Henry VIII, to call him to the throne by his will, in 1533, to the exclusion of Mary and Elizabeth. Catherine of Arragon, was the mother of the former; her intolerant catholicism made her dreaded by the English Protestants,—and the birth of the daughter of Anna Boleyn was liable to be contested.

The duke of Northumberland urged these motives to Edward VI. Lady Jane Gray, not being herself satisfied of the validity of her right to the crown, refused at first to accede to the will of Edward, but at length the entreaties of her husband, whom she tenderly loved, and over whom Northumberland exercised great authority, drew from her the fatal consent they desired. She reigned nine days, or rather her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, availed himself of her name to govern during that time.

Mary, eldest daughter of Henry VIII, however overcame her spite of the resistance of the partisans of the reformation: and her cruel and vindictive character signalized itself by the death of the Duke of Northumberland, his son Guildford, and the innocent lady Jane Gray. She was but eighteen years of age when she perished: yet her name was celebrated for her profound knowledge of ancient and modern languages, and her letters in Latin and Greek, still extant, evince very uncommon faculties for her years. She possessed the most perfect piety, and her whole existence was marked by sweetness and dignity. Her father and mother strongly urged her, notwithstanding her repugnance, to ascend the throne of England; her mother herself bore the train of her daughter on the day of her coronation; and her father, the duke of Suffolk, made and attempt to revive her party, while she was still a prisoner, and had been for some months condemned to death. It was this attempt which served as a pretext for executing her sentence, and the Duke of Suffolk perished a short time after his daughter.

The following letter might have been written in the month of February, 1554. It is certain that at this period, which is that of the death of Lady Jane Gray, she cultivated in her prison, a constant correspondence with her family and friends, and that even to her latest moments her philosophical disposition and religious firmness never forsook her.

Lady Jane Gray to Doctor Alymer.

 It is to you, my worthy friend; I owe that religious instruction, that life of faith, which can alone endure forever: my last thoughts are addressed to you in the solemn trial to which I am condemned. Three months have elapsed since the sentence of death, which the queen caused to be pronounced against my husband and myself, as a punishment for that unhappy reign of nine days, for that crown of thorns, which rested on my head only to mark it for destruction. I believed, I avow to you, that the intention of Mary was, to intimidate me by this sentence, but I did not imagine that she wished to shed my blood, which is also hers. It appeared to me my youth would have been sufficient to excuse me, when it should be proved that for a long time I resisted the melancholy honors with which I was menaced, and that my deference to the wishes of the Duke of Northumberland my father-in-law, was alone able to mislead me to the fault I have committed; but it is not to accuse my enemies, I write to you; they are the instruments of the will of god, like every other event of this world, and I ought to reflect but upon my own emotions. Enclosed in this tower, I live upon my thoughts, and my moral and religious conduct consists only in conflicts within myself.

Yesterday our friend Ascham came to see me, and the sight of him at first gave me a lively pleasure; it recalled to my mind the recollection of the delightful and profitable hours I have passed with him in the study of the ancients. I wished to converse with him only on those illustrious deaths, the descriptions of which have opened to me a train of reflections without end. Ascham, you know, is serious and calm; he leans upon old age as a support against the evils of existence; in fact, the old age of a reflecting being is not feeble; experience and faith fortify it, and when the space which remains is so short, a last effort is sufficient to bear us over it; the goal is yet nearer to me than to an old man, but the sufferings accumulated upon my last days will be bitter.

Ascham announced to me that the queen permitted me to breathe the air in the garden of my prison, and I cannot express the joy I felt at it; it was such that our poor friend had not at first the courage to disturb it. We descended together, and he permitted me to enjoy for some time that nature of which I had been for several months deprived; it was one of those days at the close of winter which announces spring. I know not if that beautiful season itself would so much have affected my imagination as this presentments of its return; the trees turned their still leafless branches towards the sun; the grass was already green; a few premature flowers seemed, by their perfume, to form a prelude to the melody of nature, when she should reappear in all her magnificence! The air was of an undefinable softness it seemed as if I heard the voice of God, in the invisible and all-powerful breath, which, at every moment restored me again to life—to life! What have I said! I have thought until this day that it was my right, and now I receive its last benefits the adieus of a friend.

I advanced with Ascham towards the borders of the Thames, and we seated ourselves in the yet leafless wood, which was soon to be clothed with verdure; the waves seemed to sparkle with the reflection of the light of heaven; but although this spectacle was brilliant as a festival, there is always something melancholy in the course of the waves and no one can long contemplate them, without yielding to those reveries whose charm consists, above every thing, in a sort of detachment from ourselves. Ascham perceived the direction of my thoughts, and suddenly seizing my hands, and bathing it with tears, ‘Oh thou,’ said he, ‘who art ever my sovereign, is it for me to acquaint you with the fate which menaces you? Your father has assembled your partisans to oppose Mary, and this Queen, justly detested, charges you with all the love your name has excited.’ His sobs interrupted him. ‘Continue,’ said I to him; ‘Oh, my friend, remember those contemplative beings, who with a firm countenance, have looked upon the death even of those who were dear to them; they knew whence we came, and whether we go, that is enough. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘your sentence is to be executed, but, I bring that succor which has delivered so many illustrious men from the proscription of tyrants.’ This old man, the friend of my youth, then tremblingly offered me the poison, with which he would have saved me, at the peril of his life. I remembered how often we had together admired certain voluntary deaths among the ancients, and I fell into profound reflection, as if the lights of Christianity were suddenly extinguished in me, and I was abandoned to that indecision, from which even man, in the most simple occurrence, finds so much difficulty in extricating himself. Ascham fell on his knees before me, and covering his eyes with one had, with the other he presented me the fatal resource he had prepared. I gently repulse his hand; and renovating myself through prayer, found power to answer him as follows—

‘Ascham,’ said I, ‘you now with what delight I read with you the philosophers and poets of Greece and Rome; the masculine beauties of their language, the simple energy of their minds, will for ever remain incomparable. Society, such as is constituted in our days, has filled most minds with frivolity and vanity, and we are not ashamed to live without reflection, without endeavoring to understand the wonders of the world, which are created to instruct man by brilliant and durable symbols. The ancients have gone much beyond us in this respect, because they made themselves; but what revelation has planted in the soul of a Christian is greater than man. From the ideal of the arts, even to the rules of conduct, everything should have relation to religious faith, since life has no other end than to teach mortality. If I fly from the signal misfortune to which I am destined, I should not fortify, by my example, the hope of those on whom my fate ought to have an influence. The ancients elevated their souls by the contemplation of their own powers—Christians have a witness before whom thy must live and die; the ancients sought to glorify human nature; Christians consider themselves but as the manifestation of god upon earth; the ancients placed in the first rank of virtues, that death which freed them from the power of their oppressors, Christians prefer that devotion, which subjects us to the will of Providence. Activity and patience have their times by turns; we must make use of our will as long as we may thus serve others and perfect ourselves; but when destiny is, in a manner, face to face with us, our courage consists in awaiting it; and to look steadily on our fate is more noble than to turn from it. The soul thus concentrating itself in its own mysteries, every external action becomes more terrestrial than resignation.’ ‘I will not seek,’ said Ascham, ‘to dispute with you opinions whose unshaken firmness may be necessary to you; I am troubled only on account of the sufferings to which your fate condemns you; will you be able to support them? And this expectation of a mortal stroke, of a fixed hour; will it not be beyond your strength. If you should terminate your fate yourself, would it not be less cruel?’ ‘We must,’ replied I, ‘let the divine spirit take back what he has given. Immortality commences on this side the tomb, when by your own will we break off with life; in this situation, the internal impressions of the soul are more delightful than you can imagine. The source of enthusiasm becomes altogether independent of the objects which surrounds us, and god alone then constitutes all our destiny, in the most inward sanctuary of our souls.’ ‘But,’ replied Ascham, ‘why give to your enemies, to the cruel queen, to a worthless crowd, the unworthy spectacle—‘

He could not proceed.

‘If I should free myself,’ said I, ‘even by death, from the fury of the queen, I should irritate her pride, and should not serve as the instrument of her repentance. Who knows how far the example I shall give may do good to my fellow-creatures? How can I judge of the place my remembrance shall occupy in the chain of the events of history? By destroying myself, what shall I teach man but the just horror inspired by a violent outrage, and the sentiment of pride which leads us to avoid it? But, in supporting this terrible fate by the firmness which religion imparts to me, I inspire vessels, heathen, like myself, but the storm, with a greater confidence in the anchor of faith, which has sustained me.’

‘The people,’ said Ascham, ‘Falsehood,’ replied I, ‘may deceive individuals for a while, but nations and time always make truth triumphant: there is an eternity for all that belongs to virtue, and what we have done for her will advance even to the sea, however small the rivulet we may have been during our life.

‘No, I shall not blush to submit to the punishment of the guilty, for it is my innocence itself calls me to it, and I should impair this sentiment of innocence by perpetrating an act of violence; we cannot accomplish it ourselves, without disturbing the serenity the soul should feel on its approach towards heaven—‘ ‘Oh! What is there more violent,’ cried our friend, ‘than this bloody death?’ ‘is not the blood of martyrs,’ replied I, ‘a balm for the wounds of the unfortunate!’ ‘This death,’ answered he, ‘inflicted by man, by the murderous ax, that a ruffian shall dare to raise over your royal head!’ ‘My friend,’ said I, ‘if my last moments were encompassed with respect, they would not the less inspire me we dread; does death bear a diadem on his pale front? Is he not always armed with the same terrors? If it were to nothing he conducted us, would it be worth while to dispute with this shadow? If it is the call of god through this veil of darkness, then day is behind this night, and heaven is concealed from us only by vain phantoms.’

‘What!’ said our friend, with a still agitated voice, and whom, at all other times, I had seen so calm, ‘are you aware that this punishment may be grievous, that it may be protracted, that an unskillful hand—‘ ‘Stop!’ said I, ‘I know it, but this will not be.’ ‘Whence comes this confidence?’ ‘From my own weakness,’ replied I. ‘I have always dreaded physical suffering and my efforts to acquire courage to brave it have been vain. I believe, therefore, I shall be always spared it; for there is much secret protection extended towards Christians, even when they seem most miserable, and what we feel to be above our strength, scarcely ever happens to us. We generally know only the exterior of man’s character; what passes within himself, may still afford new hints during thousands of ages. Irreligion has rendered the mind superficial; we are captivated by the external appearance of things, by circumstance, by fortune; the true treasures of thought, as well as of imagination, are the relations of the human heart with its creator; there are to be found presentiments, there prodigies, there oracles, and all that the ancients believed they saw in nature, was but the reflection of what they experienced within themselves, without their knowledge.’

Ascham and I were silent for some time; an uneasiness pervaded me, and I dared not express it, so much did it trouble me. ‘Have you seen my husband?’ said I. ‘Yes,’ replied Ascham. ‘Did you consult him on the offer you were about to make me? ‘Yes,’ answered he again. ‘Finish, I pray you,’ said I. ‘If Guildford and my conscience do not agree, which of these two powers should be imperative on me?’ ‘Lord Guildford,’ said he, ‘did not express an opinion on the part you ought to take, but as to him, his resolution to perish on the scaffold, in immovable.’ ‘Oh, my friend,’ cried I, ‘how I thank you for having left me the merit of a choice; if I had sooner known of the resolution of Guildford, I should not even have deliberated, and love would have been sufficient to animate me to what religion commands. Should I spare myself a single one of his sufferings? And does not every step of his towards death mark my path also?’ Ascham then perceiving my resolution not to be shaken, departed from me, sad and pensive, promising to see me again.

Doctor Feckenham, chaplain to the queen, came a few hours after, to announce to me, that the day of my death was fixed for the next Friday, from which five days still separated me. I acknowledge to you, it seemed as if I were prepared for nothing, so much did the designation of a day appall me. I tried to conceal my emotion, but Fenckenham undoubtedly perceived it, for he hastened to avail himself of my trouble, to offer me life, if I would change my religion. You see, my worthy friend, that God came to my assistance at that moment, for the necessity of repulsing an offer, so unworthy of me, restored to me the strength I had lost.

Doctor Feckenham wished to enter into controversy with me, which I prevented, by observing to him, ‘that my understanding being necessarily obscured by the situation in which I was placed, I should not, dying as I was, discuss truths of which I had been convinced when my mind was in all its strength.’ He endeavored to intimidate me, by saying that he should see me no more, neither in this world nor in heaven, from which my religious belief had excluded me. ‘You would occasion me more alarm than my executioners,’ replied I, ‘if I could believe you; but the religion to which we sacrifice life, is always the true one for the heart. The light of reason is very vacillating in questions of such moment, and I cling to the principle of sacrifice; of that I can have no doubt.’

This conversation with doctor Fenckenham revived my dejected soul; providence had just granted what Ascham desired for me, a voluntary death; I did not destroy myself, but I refused to live;—and the scaffold, accented by my will seemed no longer but as the altar chosen by the victim. To renounce life when we can purchase it but at the price of conscience, is the only kind of suicide which should be permitted to a virtuous being.

Convinced I had done my duty, I dared to count upon my courage; but soon again my attachment to existence, with which I had sometimes reproached myself, in the days of my felicity, revived in my feeble heart. Ascham came again the next day, and we visited once more the borders of the Thames, the pride of our delightful country. I endeavored to resume my habitual subjects of conversation. I recited some passages from the beautiful poetry of the Iliad and from Virgil, that we had studied together; but poetry serves above all, to penetrate us with a tender enthusiasm for existence; the seductive mixture of thoughts and images, of nature and the soul, of harmony, of language, and of the emotions it retraces, intoxicates us with the power of feeling and admiring; and these pleasures no longer exist for me! I then turned the conversation to the more sever writings of the philosophers. Ascham considers Plato as a soul predestined to Christianity; but even he, and the greater part of the ancients, are too proud of the intellectual strength of the human mind; they enjoy so much of the faculty of thought, that their desires do not lead them towards another life; they believe they can produce an evocation of it in themselves, by the energy of contemplation: I also once derived the purest delight from meditating upon heaven, genius, and nature. At the remembrance of this, a senseless regret of life took possession of me. I represented it to myself in colors compared with which, the world to come appeared no more than an abstraction destitute of charms. ‘How,’ said I to myself, ‘will the eternal duration of sentiment be equal to this succession of hope and fear, which renews, in so lively a manner, the tenderest affections? Will the knowledge of the mysteries of the universe ever equal the inexpressible attraction of the veil which covers them? Will certainty have the flattering illusion of doubt? Will the brilliancy of truth ever afford as much enjoyment, as the research and the discovery of it? What will youth, hope, memory, affection be, if the course of time is arrested? In fine, can the supreme being, in all His glory, give to the creature a more enchanting present than love?’

I humbly confess to you, my worthy friend, that these fears were impious. Ascham, who, in our conversation the evening before, had appeared less religious than myself, at once availed himself of my rebellious grief.

‘You ought not,’ said he, ‘to make use of benefits to cast a doubt upon the power of the benefactor, whose gift is this life that you regret? And if its imperfect enjoyments seem to you so valuable, why should you believe them irreparable? Certainly our imagination itself may conceive of something better than this earth; but, if it be unequal to this, is it for us to consider the deity merely as a poet, who is unable to produce a second work superior to the first?’ This simple reflection restored me to myself, and I blushed at the obliquity into which the dread of death had betrayed me! Oh! My friend! What it costs me to fathom this thought! Abysses, still deeper and deeper, open under each other!

In four days I shall no longer exist; that bird which flies through the air will survive me; I have less time to live than he; the inanimate objects which surround me will preserve their form, and nothing of me will remain upon earth, but the remembrance of my friends. Inconceivable mystery of the soul, which foresees its end here below, and yet cannot prevent it. The hand directs the coursers who conduct us: thought cannot obtain a moment’s victory over death! Pardon my weakness, oh my father in religion, you, who have so tenderly cherished me: we shall be reunited in heaven; but shall I still hear that affecting voice which revealed to me a god of mercy? Shall these eyes contemplate your venerable features? Oh, Guildford! Oh, my husband! You whose noble figure is unceasingly present to my heart, shall I behold you again, such as you are, among the angels whose image you are upon earth? But what do I say? My feeble soul desires nothing beyond the tomb but the actual return of life!—


My husband has requested to see me to-day for the last time. I have avoided that moment in which joy and despair would be too closely blended. I dreaded the loss of the resignation I now feel. You have seen that my heart has had but too much attachment to happiness; let me not relapse into it again. My father, do you approve of me? Has not this sacrifice expiated all? I no longer fear that existence will still be dear to me.

The morning of the execution.

Oh! My father! I have seen him! He marched to his execution with as firm a step as if he had commanded those by whom he was conducted. Guildford raised his eyes towards my prison, then directed them still higher; I understood him: he continued on his way. At the turn of the road which leads to the place where death is prepared for both of us, he stopped to behold me once more; his last looks blessed her, who was his companion upon the throne and upon the scaffold!

An hour after.

They have carried the remains of Guildford under the windows of the tower; a sheet covered his mutilated corpse;—through his sheet a horrible image presented itself. If the same stroke was not reserved for me, could earth support the weight of my affliction? My father, how could I regret life so deeply? Oh holy death! Gift of heaven as well as life! Thou art now my tutelary angel! Thou restorest me to serenity! My sovereign master has disposed of me, but since he will reunite me to my husband, he has demanded nothing of me surpassing my strength, and I replace my soul without fear in his hands?

  1. In my work ‘On the Influence of the Passions’ I have applauded suicide, and I have ever since repented of that inconsiderate expression.  I was then in all the pride and vivacity of early youth; but of what use is life, without the hope improvement?
  2. M. de K——an Madame de V——, two persons of very estimable character, left Berlin, the place of their abode, towards the end of the year 1811, to repair to an inn at Potsdam, where they passed some time in taking refreshment, and in singing together the canticles of the holy sacrament.  Then, by mutual consent, the man blew the woman’s brains out, and killed himself the minute after.  Madame de V——had a father, a husband, and a daughter. M. de K——was a poet, and an officer of merit.

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from A Dissertation Upon the Unnatural Crime of Self-Murder


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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from A Defense Against the Temptation to Self-Murder


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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from Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions


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

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


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

Facsimile available online from the Yale University Library.


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

My Advice is,

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


The Occasion of the Publication

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

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

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

Do Thyself No Harm

Acts 16: 27, 28

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use 3. Beware of this iniquity.

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

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

My Advice on the Occasion is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston, 23 May 1682



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