Born in Danzig of a wealthy merchant and a mother who was to become a famous romantic novelist, the young Schopenhauer studied modern languages in order to prepare for the mercantile career that his father desired for him. The family travelled through Europe extensively, and Schopenhauer lived in France and England. When his father died in 1805, a presumed suicide by drowning, the family moved to Weimar where his mother hosted literary celebrities, including the writers Goethe [q.v.] and Wieland. When he was 21, Schopenhauer entered the University of Göttingen as a medical student, but quickly switched to philosophy. His studies were first concentrated on Plato [q.v.] and Kant [q.v.], both of whom, along with the Hindu Upanishads [q.v., under Vedas, Puranas, and Upanishads] and other Eastern mystical thinkers, served as important foundations for his thinking.
In his major philosophical work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818; published in English as The World as Will and Idea, 1883–86), Schopenhauer posits a pessimistic idealism in which everything is a mental construction of the subjective mind. One can come to understand, through reflection, perception, and reasoning, how the world works; however, the true nature of reality remains hidden. The will exists in all things and is only conscious in man, yet the will is not completely free from predetermined, irrational, and unconscious motives. The will leads to individuation, but also to turmoil and trials: the amount of happiness is therefore always less than the amount of unhappiness. Relief and pleasure can be found in beauty, but only temporarily; only denial of the demands of the will, in the manner of the saints, can ultimately lead to internal peace. Schopenhauer’s publication was initially ignored, and his attempt to establish himself as a professor at the University of Berlin failed, in part because he chose to lecture at the same time as the immensely popular Hegel. Schopenhauer was severe, distrustful, suspicious, and profoundly misogynist; and his life was lonely, violent, and unbefriended, except for his poodle “Atma,” a name borrowed from Hinduism/Buddhism, reinterpreted in Schopenhauer’s thought as the “universal soul,” “the impersonal, eternally renewed primordial force of nature.” It was only in the last decade of his life, after the publication of Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), a collection of aphorisms and essays, that he achieved fame and an admiring public. Schopenhauer died of heart failure in 1860.
The following selections from The World as Will and Idea and Studies in Pessimism from Parerga and Paralipomena outline Schopenhauer’s conception of suicide. He completely rejects the view of suicide as sin and as crime that, he says, is characteristic of the monotheistic religions; in his view, suicide is not wrong. However, although Schopenhauer advocates denial of the will, he rejects most suicide as a means to achieve it. This condemnation is not moral or legal; rather it is a cognitive mistake, at least when suicide is the result of personal despair. In some situations, however, such as voluntary self-starvation or religious sacrifice, suicide may be the assertion of an asceticism lacking a will; the difference between the suicide of the genuine ascetic and suicide resulting from despair is that the ascetic denies life’s pleasures and wills nothing, while the suicide of despair rejects life’s sorrows and desires a better world. The ascetic realizes that life is a state of suffering, while the suicide of despair erroneously believes that his own life embodies the problem.
Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea; Vol. 1, Book IV, “The Assertion and Denial of the Will,” Sec. 69. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 1883, pp. 514-520, excerpted; “On Suicide,” in Studies in Pessimism: A Series of Essays, tr. T. Bailey Saunders. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893, pp. 43-50, footnotes deleted or interpolated; also available online from Project Gutenberg Release #10732; quote in biographical note from Bhikkhu Nanajivako, “Schopenhauer and Buddhism,” Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1970, 1988, p. 7.
from THE WORLD AS WILL AND IDEA
§ 69. Suicide, the actual doing away with the individual manifestation of will, differs most widely from the denial of the will to live, which is the single outstanding act of free-will in the manifestation, and is therefore, as Asmus calls it, the transcendental change. This last has been fully considered in the course of our work. Far from being denial of the will, suicide is a phenomenon of strong assertion of will; for the essence of negation lies in this, that the joys of life are shunned, not its sorrows. The suicide wills life, and is only dissatisfied with the conditions under which it has presented itself to him. He therefore by no means surrenders the will to live, but only life, in that he destroys the individual manifestation. He wills life—wills the unrestricted existence and assertion of the body; but the complication of circumstances does not allow this, and there results for him great suffering. The very will to live finds itself so much hampered in this particular manifestation that it cannot put forth its energies. It therefore comes to such a determination as is in conformity with its own nature, which lies outside the conditions of the principle of sufficient reason, and to which, therefore, all particular manifestations are alike indifferent, inasmuch as it itself remains unaffected by all appearing and passing away, and is the inner life of all things; for that firm inward assurance by reason of which we all live free from the constant dread of death, the assurance that a phenomenal existence can never be wanting to the will, supports our action even in the case of suicide. Thus the will to live appears just as much in suicide (Siva) as in the satisfaction of self-preservation (Vishnu) and in the sensual pleasure of procreation (Brahma). This is the inner meaning of the unity of the Trimurtis, which is embodied in its entirety in every human being, though in time it raises now one, now another, of its three heads. Suicide stands in the same relation to the denial of the will as the individual thing does to the Idea. The suicide denies only the individual, not the species. We have already seen that as life is always assured to the will to live, and as sorrow is inseparable from life, suicide, the wilful destruction of the single phenomenal existence, is a vain and foolish act; for the thing-in-itself remains unaffected by it, even as the rainbow endures however fast the drops which support it for the moment may change. But, more than this, it is also the masterpiece of Maya, as the most flagrant example of the contradiction of the will to live with itself. As we found this contradiction in the case of the lowest manifestations of will, in the permanent struggle of all the forces of nature, and of all organic individuals for matter and time and space; and as we saw this antagonism come ever more to the front with terrible distinctness in the ascending grades of the objectification of the will, so at last in the highest grade, the Idea of man, it reaches the point at which, not only the individuals which express the same Idea extirpate each other, but even the same individual declares war against itself. The vehemence with which it wills life, and revolts against what hinders it, namely, suffering, brings it to the point of destroying itself; so that the individual will, by its own act, puts an end to that body which is merely its particular visible expression, rather than permit suffering to break the will. Just because the suicide cannot give up willing, he gives up living. The will asserts itself here even in putting an end to its own manifestation, because it can no longer assert itself otherwise. As, however, it was just the suffering which it so shuns that was able, as mortification of the will, to bring it to the denial of itself, and hence to freedom, so in this respect the suicide is like a sick man, who, after a painful operation which would entirely cure him has been begun, will not allow it to be completed, but prefers to retain his disease. Suffering approaches and reveals itself as the possibility of the denial of will; but the will rejects it, in that it destroys the body, the manifestation of itself, in order that it may remain unbroken. This is the reason why almost all ethical teachers, whether philosophical or religious, condemn suicide, although they themselves can only give far-fetched sophistical reasons for their opinion. But if a human being was ever restrained from committing suicide by purely moral motives, the inmost meaning of this self-conquest (in whatever ideas his reason may have clothed it) was this: “I will not shun suffering, in order that it may help to put an end to the will to live, whose manifestation is so wretched, by so strengthening the knowledge of the real nature of the world which is already beginning to dawn upon me, that it may become the final quieter of my will, and may free me for ever.”
It is well known that from time to time cases occur in which the act of suicide extends to the children. The father first kills the children he loves, and then himself. Now, if we consider that conscience, religion, and all influencing ideas teach him to look upon murder as the greatest of crimes, and that, in spite of this, he yet commits it, in the hour of his own death, and when he is altogether uninfluenced by any egotistical motive, such a deed can only be explained in the following manner: in this case, the will of the individual, the father, recognizes itself immediately in the children, though involved in the delusion of mistaking the appearance for the true nature; and as he is at the same time deeply impressed with the knowledge of the misery of all life, he now thinks to put an end to the inner nature itself, along with the appearance, and thus seeks to deliver from existence and its misery both himself and his children, in whom he discerns himself as living again. It would be an error precisely analogous to this to suppose that one may reach the same end as is attained through voluntary chastity by frustrating the aim of nature in fecundation; or indeed if, in consideration of the unendurable suffering of life, parents were to use means for the destruction of their new-born children, instead of doing everything possible to ensure life to that which is struggling into it. For if the will to live is there, as it is the only metaphysical reality, or the thing-in-itself, no physical force can break it, but can only destroy its manifestation at this place and time. It itself can never be transcended except through knowledge. Thus the only way of salvation is, that the will shall manifest itself unrestrictedly, in order that in this individual manifestation it may come to apprehend its own nature. Only as the result of this knowledge can the will transcend itself, and thereby end the suffering which is inseparable from its manifestation. It is quite impossible to accomplish this end by physical force, as by destroying the germ, or by killing the newborn child, or by committing suicide. Nature guides the will to the light, just because it is only in the light that it can work out its salvation. Therefore the aims of Nature are to be promoted in every way as soon as the will to live, which is its inner being, has determined itself.
There is a species of suicide which seems to be quite distinct from the common kind, though its occurrence has perhaps not yet been fully established. It is starvation, voluntarily chosen on the ground of extreme asceticism. All instances of it, however, have been accompanied and obscured by much religious fanaticism, and even superstition. Yet it seems that the absolute denial of will may reach the point at which the will shall be wanting to take the necessary nourishment for the support of the natural life. This kind of suicide is so far from being the result of the will to live, that such a completely resigned ascetic only ceases to live because he has already altogether ceased to will. No other death than that by starvation is in this case conceivable (unless it were the result of some special superstition); for the intention to cut short the torment would itself be a stage in the assertion of will. The dogmas which satisfy the reason of such a penitent delude him with the idea that a being of a higher nature has inculcated the fasting to which his own inner tendency drives him. Old examples of this may be found in the ” Breslauer Sammlung von Natur- und Medicin-Geschichten,” September 1799, p. 363; in Bayle’s “Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres,” February 1685, p. 189; in Zimmerman, “Ueber die Einsamkeit,” vol. i. p. 182 ; in the “Histoire de l’Academie des Sciences” for 1764, an account by Houttuyn, which is quoted in the ” Sammlung fiir praktische Aerzte,” vol. i. p. 69. More recent accounts may be found in Hufeland’s “Journal für praktische Heilkunde,” vol. x. p. 181, and vol . xlviii. p. 95; also in Nasse’s ” Zeitschrift für psychische Aerzte,” 1819, part iii, p. 460; and in the “Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal,” 1809, vol. v. p. 319. In the year 1833 all the papers announced that the English historian, Dr. Lingard, had died in January at Dover of voluntary starvation; according to later accounts, it was not he himself, but a relation of his who died. Still in these accounts the persons were generally described as insane, and it is no longer possible to find out how far this was the case. But I will give here a more recent case of this kind, if it were only to ensure the preservation of one of the rare instances of this striking and extraordinary phenomenon of human nature, which, to all appearance at any rate, belongs to the category to which I wish to assign it and could hardly be explained in any other way. This case is reported in the “Niimberger Correspondenten” of the 29th July 1813, in these words :— “We hear from Bern that in a thick wood near Thurnen a hut has been discovered in which was lying the body of a man who had been dead about a month. His clothes gave little or no clue to his social position. Two very fine shirts lay beside him. The most important article, however, was a Bible interleaved with white paper, part of which had been written upon by the deceased. In this writing he gives the date of his departure from home (but does not mention where his home was). He then says that he was driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to pray and fast. During his journey he had fasted seven days and then he had again taken food. After this he had begun again to fast, and continued to do so for the same number of days as before. From this point we find each day marked with a stroke, and of these there are five, at the expiration of which the pilgrim presumably died. There was further found a letter to a clergyman about a sermon which the deceased heard him preach, but the letter was not addressed.” Between this voluntary death arising from extreme asceticism and the common suicide resulting from despair there may be various intermediate species and combinations, though this is hard to find out. But human nature has depths, obscurities, and perplexities, the analysis and elucidation of which is a matter of the very greatest difficulty.
from STUDIES IN PESSIMISM
As far as I know, none but the votaries of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, look upon suicide as a crime. This is all the more striking, inasmuch as neither in the Old nor in the New Testament is there to be found any prohibition or positive disapproval of it; so that religious teachers are forced to base their condemnation of suicide on philosophical grounds of their own invention. These are so very bad that writers of this kind endeavor to make up for the weakness of their arguments by the strong terms in which they express their abhorrence of the practice; in other words, they declaim against it. They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice; that only a madman could be guilty of it; and other insipidities of the same kind; or else they make the nonsensical remark that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.
Suicide, as I have said, is actually accounted a crime; and a crime which, especially under the vulgar bigotry that prevails in England, is followed by an ignominious burial and the seizure of the man’s property; and for that reason, in a case of suicide, the jury almost always bring in a verdict of insanity. Now let the reader’s own moral feelings decide as to whether or not suicide is a criminal act. Think of the impression that would be made upon you by the news that someone you know had committed the crime, say, of murder or theft, or been guilty of some act of cruelty or deception; and compare it with your feelings when you hear that he has met a voluntary death. While in the one case a lively sense of indignation and extreme resentment will be aroused, and you will call loudly for punishment or revenge, in the other you will be moved to grief and sympathy; and mingled with your thoughts will be admiration for his courage, rather than the moral disapproval which follows upon a wicked action. Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relations, who of their own free will have left this world; and are these to be thought of with horror as criminals? Most emphatically No! I am rather of opinion that the clergy should be challenged to explain what right they have to go into the pulpit, or take up their pens, and stamp as a crime an action which many men whom we hold in affection and honor have committed; and to refuse an honorable burial to those who relinquish this world voluntarily. They have no Biblical authority to boast of, as justifying their condemnation of suicide; nay, not even any philosophical arguments that will hold water; and it must be understood that it is arguments we want, and that we will not be put off with mere phrases or words of abuse. If the criminal law forbids suicide, that is not an argument valid in the Church; and besides, the prohibition is ridiculous; for what penalty can frighten a man who is not afraid of death itself? If the law punishes people for trying to commit suicide, it is punishing the want of skill that makes the attempt a failure.
The ancients, moreover, were very far from regarding the matter in that light. Pliny says: Life is not so desirable a thing as to be protracted at any cost. Whoever you are, you are sure to die, even though your life has been full of abomination and crime. The chief of all remedies for a troubled mind is the feeling that among the blessings which Nature gives to man there is none greater than an opportune death; and the best of it is that every one can avail himself of it 1. And elsewhere the same writer declares: Not even to God are all things possible; for he could not compass his own death, if he willed to die, and yet in all the miseries of our earthly life, this is the best of his gifts to man 2. Nay, in Massilia and on the isle of Ceos, the man who could give valid reasons for relinquishing his life, was handed the cup of hemlock by the magistrate; and that, too, in public 3. And in ancient times, how many heroes and wise men died a voluntary death. Aristotle 4 , it is true, declared suicide to be an offense against the State, although not against the person; but in Stobaeus’ exposition of the Peripatetic philosophy there is the following remark: The good man should flee life when his misfortunes become too great; the bad man, also, when he is too prosperous. And similarly: So he will marry and beget children and take part in the affairs of the State, and, generally, practice virtue and continue to live; and then, again, if need be, and at any time necessity compels him, he will depart to his place of refuge in the tomb 5. And we find that the Stoics actually praised suicide as a noble and heroic action, as hundreds of passages show; above all in the works of Seneca, who expresses the strongest approval of it. As is well known, the Hindoos look upon suicide as a religious act, especially when it takes the form of self-immolation by widows; but also when it consists in casting oneself under the wheels of the chariot of the god at Juggernaut, or being eaten by crocodiles in the Ganges, or being drowned in the holy tanks in the temples, and so on. The same thing occurs on the stage – that mirror of life. For example, in L’Orphelinde la Chine 6, a celebrated Chinese play, almost all the noble characters end by suicide; without the slightest hint anywhere, or any impression being produced on the spectator, that they are committing a crime. And in our own theater it is much the same – Palmira, for example, in Mahomet, or Mortimer in Maria Stuart, Othello, Countess Terzky. Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is. But there lies the rub!
The reasons advanced against suicide by the clergy of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, and by those philosophers who adapt themselves thereto, are weak sophisms which can easily be refuted 7 . The most thorough-going refutation of them is given by Hume in his Essay on Suicide. This did not appear until after his death, when it was immediately suppressed, owing to the scandalous bigotry and outrageous ecclesiastical tyranny that prevailed in England; and hence only a very few copies of it were sold under cover of secrecy and at high price. This and another treatise by that great man have come to us from Basle, and we may be thankful for the reprint 8. It is a great disgrace to the English nation that a purely philosophical treatise, which, proceeding from one of the first thinkers and writers in England, aimed at refuting the current arguments against suicide by the light of cold reason, should be forced to sneak about in that country, as though it were some rascally production, until at last it found refuge on the Continent. At the same time it shows what a good conscience the Church has in such matters.
In my chief work I have explained the only valid reason existing against suicide on the score of morality. It is this: that suicide thwarts the attainment of the highest moral aim by the fact that, for a real release from this world of misery, it substitutes one that is merely apparent. But from a mistake to a crime is a far cry; and it is as a crime that the clergy of Christendom wish us to regard suicide.
The inmost kernel of Christianity is the truth that suffering – the Cross – is the real end and object of life. Hence Christianity condemns suicide as thwarting this end; whilst the ancient world, taking a lower point of view, held it in approval, nay, in honor. But if that is to be accounted a valid reason against suicide, it involves the recognition of asceticism; that is to say, it is valid only from a much higher ethical standpoint than has ever been adopted by moral philosophers in Europe. If we abandon that high standpoint, there is no tenable reason left, on the score of morality, for condemning suicide. The extraordinary energy and zeal with which the clergy of monotheistic religions attack suicide is not supported either by any passages in the Bible or by any considerations of weight; so that it looks as though they must have some secret reason for their contention. May it not be this – that the voluntary surrender of life is a bad compliment for him who said that all things were very good? If this is so, it offers another instance of the crass optimism of these religions, – denouncing suicide to escape being denounced by it.
It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world. Perhaps there is no man alive who would not have already put an end to his life, if this end had been of a purely negative character, a sudden stoppage of existence. There is something positive about it; it is the destruction of the body; and a man shrinks from that, because his body is the manifestation of the will to live.
However, the struggle with that sentinel is, as a rule, not so hard as it may seem from a long way off, mainly in consequence of the antagonism between the ills of the body and the ills of the mind. If we are in great bodily pain, or the pain lasts a long time, we become indifferent to other troubles; all we think about is to get well. In the same way great mental suffering makes us insensible to bodily pain; we despise it; nay, if it should outweigh the other, it distracts our thoughts, and we welcome it as a pause in mental suffering. It is this feeling that makes suicide easy; for the bodily pain that accompanies it loses all significance in the eyes of one who is tortured by an excess of mental suffering. This is especially evident in the case of those who are driven to suicide by some purely morbid and exaggerated ill-humor. No special effort to overcome their feelings is necessary, nor do such people require to be worked up in order to take the step; but as soon as the keeper into whose charge they are given leaves them for a couple of minutes, they quickly bring their life to an end.
When, in some dreadful and ghastly dream, we reach the moment of greatest horror, it awakes us; thereby banishing all the hideous shapes that were born of the night. And life is a dream: when the moment of greatest horror compels us to break it off, the same thing happens.
Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment – a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to an answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things? It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.
1 Hist. Nat. Lib. xxviii., 1.
2 Loc. cit. Lib. ii. C. 7
3 Valerius Maximus; hist. Lib. ii., c. 6, §7 et 8. Heraclides Ponticus; fragmenta de rebus publicis, ix. Aeliani variae historiae, iii , 37. Strabo; Lib. x., c. 5, 6.
4 Eth. Nichom., v. 15.
5 Stobaeus. Ecl. Eth. ii., c. 7, pp. 286, 312.
6 Tradhuit par St. Julien, 1834.
7 See my treatise on the Foundation of Morals, § 5.
8 Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, by the late David Hume, Basle, 1799, sold by James Decker.