from Is Suicide Justifiable?


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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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