David Hume, the philosopher, economist, and historian whose ideas and arguments continue to profoundly influence the course of philosophical thought, was born in Scotland. With his older brother, he began at the University of Edinburgh before the age of 12. Despite his family’s suggestion that he read for the law, he chose to study philosophy (initially in secret, he later reported) because, as he said, he had an “insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuit of philosophy and general learning.” His intense studies made him for a time concerned for his health.
Recovered, Hume lived in France from 1734 to 1737 and wrote what is often considered his most important philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740). Other notable works by Hume include Essays, Moral and Political (1741–42), An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Political Discourses (1752), and History of England (1754–1762). His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which critiques the argument from order and adaptation in nature to an intelligent designer of the universe, was published posthumously to forestall religious controversy. In 1763, Hume returned to France to take up a post at the British embassy, where his writings had made him popular among intellectuals, including those of the salon of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach [q.v.].
Hume’s philosophy is notable for its empiricism, naturalism, and skepticism. As an empiricist, he traces knowledge, belief, and the contents of thought itself to origins in experience. As a naturalist, he seeks to explain phenomena—even morality, thought, and other operations of the mind—in terms of ordinary laws of nature, without appeal to miracles, causally undetermined acts of “free will,” eternal moral relations in the fabric of the universe, or a supernatural creator or legislator. As a skeptic, he emphasizes the weaknesses and limited scope of human cognitive faculties.
Hume’s famous essay Of Suicide, offered here in the authentic 1757 text (which differs considerably from the frequently reprinted posthumous 1777 and 1783 versions), provides a series of detailed and adroit objections to the principal points of Thomas Aquinas’s [q.v.] arguments against suicide, including those that claim that suicide is “unnatural.” Hume asserts that “suicide . . . may be free from every imputation of guilt or blame.” Hume had written the suicide essay prior to June 1755 when he wrote to his bookseller about possible publication in a volume of longer dissertations (eventually published in 1757), but suppressed this and another essay, On the Immortality of the Soul—as he said in his letters, out of his “abundant Prudence”. However, a few copies were circulated, one of which came into the hands of a French bookseller, who in 1770, brought out a French translation possibly made by Holbach; it was not published in English until a year after Hume’s death, and then only in an edition without Hume’s name or the publisher’s identity.
Hume’s letter to John Home, his brother (both variants of the spelling were pronounced “hyum”), written at the age of 35 while Hume was serving as secretary to General James St. Clair, describes what some have called a “farcical” invasion of the coast of France. Hume’s letter gives a compelling account of Hume’s attempt, against the background of these circumstances, to prevent the death of a friend and military companion who had slit his veins. “Alas!” Hume says in explaining why he refused to assist the suicide as requested in the name of friendship, “we live not in Greek or Roman times.”
Hume returned to Edinburgh in 1769, where he died in 1776 after a year-long illness. His friends reported that he faced death with composure and good humor.
David Hume, Of Suicide (1757), manuscript in the National Library of Scotland with corrections in Hume’s own hand, text provided by Tom L. Beauchamp; “To John Home of Ninewells,” from J. Y. T. Grieg, ed., The Letters of David Hume. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932, vol. 1, letter 53, pp. 94-95, 97-98, spelling modernized.
from OF SUICIDE
One considerable advantage, that arises from philosophy, consists in the sovereign antidote, which it affords to superstition and false religion. All other remedies against that pestilent distemper are vain, or, at least, uncertain. Plain good-sense, and the practice of the world, which alone serve most purposes of life, are here found ineffectual: history, as well as daily experience, affords instances of men, endowed with the strongest capacity for business and affairs, who have all their lives crouched under slavery to the grossest superstition. Even gaiety and sweetness of temper, which infuse a balm into every other wound, afford no remedy to so virulent a poison; as we may particularly observe of the fair sex, who, though commonly possessed of these rich presents of nature, feel many of their joys blasted by this importunate intruder. But when sound philosophy has once gained possession of the mind, superstition is effectually excluded; and one may safely affirm, that her triumph over this enemy is more complete than over most of the vices and imperfections, incident to human nature. Love or anger, ambition or avarice, have their root in the temper and affections, which the soundest reason is scarce ever able fully to correct. But superstition, being founded on false opinion, must immediately vanish, when true philosophy has inspired juster sentiments of superior powers. The contest is here more equal between the distemper and the medicine: and nothing can hinder the latter from proving effectual, but its being false and sophisticated.
It will here be superfluous to magnify the merits of philosophy, by displaying the pernicious tendency of that vice, of which it cures the human mind. The superstitious man, says Tully, is miserable in every scene, in every incident in life. Even sleep itself, which banishes all other cares of unhappy mortals, affords to him matter of new terror; while he examines his dreams, and finds in those visions of the night, prognostications of future calamities. I may add, that, though death alone can put a full period to his misery, he dares not fly to this refuge, but still prolongs a miserable existence, from a vain fear, lest he offend his maker, by using the power, with which that beneficent being has endowed him. The presents of God and Nature are ravished from us by this cruel enemy; and notwithstanding that one step would remove us from the regions of pain and sorrow, her menaces still chain us down to a hated being, which she herself chiefly contributes to render miserable.
It is observed of such as have been reduced by the calamities of life to the necessity of employing this fatal remedy, that, if the unseasonable care of their friends deprive them of that species of death, which they proposed to themselves, they seldom venture upon any other, or can summon up so much resolution, a second time, as to execute their purpose. So great is our horror of death, that when it presents itself under any form, besides that to which a man has endeavored to reconcile his imagination, it acquires new terrors, and overcomes his feeble courage. But when the menaces of superstition are joined to this natural timidity, no wonder it quite deprives men of all power over their lives; since even many pleasures and enjoyments, to which we are carried by a strong propensity, are torn from us by this inhuman tyrant. Let us here endeavor to restore men to their native liberty, by examining all the common arguments against suicide, and showing, that that action may be free from every imputation of guilt or blame; according to the sentiments of all the antient philosophers.
If suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty either to God, our neighbor, or ourselves.
To prove, that suicide is no transgression of our duty to God, the following considerations may perhaps suffice. In order to govern the material world, the almighty creator has established general and immutable laws, by which all bodies, from the greatest planet to the smallest particle of matter, are maintained in their proper sphere and function. To govern the animal world, he has endowed all living creatures with bodily and mental powers; with senses, passions, appetites, memory, and judgment; by which they are impelled or regulated in that course of life, to which they are destined. These two distinct principles of the material and animal world continually encroach upon each other, and mutually retard or forward each other’s operation. The powers of men and of all other animals are restrained and directed by the nature and qualities of the surrounding bodies; and the modifications and actions of these bodies are incessantly altered by the operation of all animals. Man is stopped by rivers in his passage over the surface of the earth; and rivers, when properly directed, lend their force to the motion of machines, which serve to the use of man. But though the provinces of the material and animal powers are not help entirely separate, there result from thence no discord or disorder in the creation: on the contrary, from the mixture, union, and contrast of all the various powers of inanimate bodies and living creatures, arises that surprising harmony and proportion, which affords the surest argument of supreme wisdom.
The providence of the deity appears not immediately in any operation, but governs every thing by those general and immutable laws, which have been established from the beginning of time. All events, in one sense, may be pronounced the action of the almighty: they all proceed from those powers, with which he has endowed his creatures. A house, which falls by its own weight, is not brought to ruin by his providence more than one destroyed by the hands of men; nor are the human faculties less his workmanship than the laws of motion and gravitation. When the passions play, when the judgment dictates, when the limbs obey; this is all the operation of God; and upon these animate principles, as well as upon the inanimate, has he established the government of the universe.
Every event is alike important in the eyes of that infinite being, who takes in, at one glance, the most distant regions of space and remotest periods of time. There is no one event, however important to us, which he has exempted from the general laws that govern the universe, or which he has peculiarly reserved for his own immediate action and operation. The revolutions of states and empires depend upon the smallest caprice or passion of single men; and the lives of men are shortened or extended by the smallest accident of air or diet, sunshine or tempest. Nature still continues her progress and operation; and if general laws be ever broke by particular volitions of the deity, it is after a manner which entirely escapes human observation. As on the one hand, the elements and other inanimate parts of the creation carry on their action without regard to the particular interest and situation of men; so men are entrusted to their own judgment and discretion in the various shocks of matter, and may employ every faculty, with which they are endowed, in order to provide for their ease, happiness, or preservation.
What is the meaning, then, of that principle, that a man, who, tired of life, and hunted by pain and misery, bravely overcomes all the natural terrors of death, and makes his escape from this cruel scene; that such a man, I say, has incurred the indignation of his creator, by encroaching on the office of divine providence, and disturbing the order of the universe? Shall we assert, that the Almighty has reserved to himself, in any peculiar manner, the disposal of the lives of men, and has not submitted that event, in common with others, to the general laws, by which the universe is governed? This is plainly false. The lives of men depend upon the same laws as the lives of all other animals; and these are subjected to the general laws of matter and motion. The fall of a tower or the infusion of a poison will destroy a man equally with the meanest creature: An inundation sweeps away every thing, without distinction, that comes within the reach of its fury. Since therefore the lives of men are for ever dependent on the general laws of matter and motion; is a man’s disposing of his life criminal, because, in every case it is criminal to encroach upon these laws, or disturb their operation? But this seems absurd. All animals are entrusted to their own prudence and skill for their conduct in the world, and have full authority, as far as their power extends, to alter all the operations of nature. Without the exercise of this authority, they could not subsist a moment. Every action, every motion of a man innovates in the order of some parts of matter, and diverts, from their ordinary course, the general laws of motion. Putting together, therefore, these conclusions, we find, that human life depends upon the general laws of matter and motion, and that ‘tis no encroachment on the office of providence to disturb or alter these general laws. Has not every one, of consequence, the free disposal of his own life? And may he not lawfully employ that power with which nature has endowed him?
In order to destroy the evidence of this conclusion, we must show a reason, why this particular case is excepted. Is it because human life is of such great importance, that it is a presumption for human prudence to dispose of it? But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. And were it of ever so great importance, the order of nature has actually submitted it to human prudence, and reduced us to a necessity, in every incident, of determining concerning it.
Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the almighty, that it were an encroachment on his right for men to dispose of their own lives; it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. If I turn aside a stone, which is falling upon my head, I disturb the course of nature, and I invade the peculiar province of the almighty, by lengthening out my life, beyond the period, which, by the general laws of matter and motion, he had assigned to it.
A hair, a fly, an insect is able to destroy this mighty being, whose life is of such importance. Is it an absurdity to suppose, that human prudence may lawfully dispose of what depends on such insignificant causes?
It would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or Danube from its course, were I able to effect such purposes. Where then is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channels!
Do you imagine that I repine at providence or curse my creation, because I go out of life, and put a period to a being, which, were it to continue, would render me miserable? Far be such sentiments from me. I am only convinced of a matter of fact, which you yourself acknowledge possible, that human life may be unhappy, and that my existence, if farther prolonged, would become uneligible. But I thank providence, both for the good, which I have already enjoyed, and for the power, with which I am endowed, of escaping the ill that threatens me. To you it belongs to repine at providence, who foolishly imagine that you have no such power, and who must still prolong a hated being, though loaded with pain and sickness, with shame and poverty.
Do you not teach, that when any ill befalls me, though by the malice of my enemies, I ought to be resigned to providence; and that the actions of men are the operations of the almighty as much as the actions of inanimate beings? When I fall upon my sword, therefore, I receive my death equally from the hands of the deity, and if it had proceeded from a lion, a precipice, or a fever.
The submission, which you require to providence, in every calamity, that befalls me, excludes not human skill and industry; if possibly, by their means, I can avoid or escape the calamity. And why may I not employ one remedy as well as another?
If my life be not my own, it were criminal for me to put it in danger, as well as to dispose of it: nor could one man deserve the appellation of hero, whom glory or friendship transports into the greatest dangers, and another merit the reproach of wretch or miscreant, who puts a period to his life, from the same or like motives.
There in no being, which possesses any power or faculty, that it receives not from its creator; nor is there any one, which, by ever so irregular an action, can encroach upon the plan of his providence, or disorder the universe. Its operations are his work equally with that chain of events, which it invades; and which ever principle prevails, we may, for that very reason, conclude it to be most favored by him. Be it animate, or inanimate, rational or irrational, it is all a case: its power is still derived from the supreme creator, and is alike comprehended in the order of his providence. When the horror of pain prevails over the love of life: when a voluntary action anticipates the effect of blind causes; it is only in consequence of those powers and principles, which he has implanted in his creatures. Divine providence is still inviolate, and placed far beyond the reach of human injuries.
It is impious, says the old Roman superstition, to divert rivers from their course, or invade the prerogatives of nature. It is impious, says the French superstition, to inoculate for the small-pox, or usurp the business of providence, by voluntarily producing distempers and maladies. It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life, and thereby rebel against our creator. And why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions, we employ our powers of mind and body to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in none of them do we any more. They are all of them, therefore, equally innocent or equally criminal.
But you are placed by providence, like a sentinel, in a particular station; and when you desert it, without being recalled, you are guilty of rebellion against your almighty sovereign, and have incurred his displeasure. I ask, why do you conclude, that providence has placed me in this station? For my part, I find, that I owe my birth to a long chain of causes, of which many and even the principal, depended upon voluntary actions of men. But providence guided all these causes, and nothing happens in the universe without its consent and cooperation. If so, then neither does my death, however voluntary, happen without its consent; and whenever pain and sorrow so far overcome my patience as to make me tired of life, I may conclude, that I am recalled from my station, in the clearest and most express terms.
It is providence, surely, that has placed me at present in this chamber: but may I not leave it, when I think proper, without being liable to the imputation of having deserted my post or station? When I shall be dead, the principles, of which I am composed, will still perform their part in the universe, and will be equally useful in the grand fabric, as when they composed this individual creature. The difference to the whole will be no greater than between my being in a chamber and in the open air. The one change is of more importance to me than the other; but not more so to the universe.
It is a kind of blasphemy to imagine, that any created being can disturb the order of the world, or invade the business of providence. It supposes, that that being possesses powers and faculties, which it received not from its creator, and which are not subordinate to his government and authority. A man may disturb society, no doubt; and thereby incur the displeasure of the almighty: but the government of the world is placed far beyond his reach and violence. And how does it appear, that the almighty is displeased with those actions, that disturb society? By the principles which he has implanted in human nature, and which inspire us with a sentiment of remorse, if we ourselves have been guilty of such actions, and with that of blame and disapprobation, if we ever observe them in others. Let us now examine, according to the method proposed, whether suicide be of this kind of actions, and be a breach of our duty to our neighbor and to society.
A man, who retires from life, does no harm to society. He only ceases to do good; which, if it be an injury, is of the lowest kind.
All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interest. But when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer?
But allowing, that our obligations to do good were perpetual, they have certainly some bounds. I am not obliged to do a small good to society, at the expense of a great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence, because of some frivolous advantage, which the public may, perhaps, receive from me? If upon account of age and infirmities, I may lawfully resign any office, and employ my time altogether in fencing against these calamities, and alleviating, as much as possible, the miseries of my future life: why may I not cut short these miseries at once by an action, which is no more prejudicial to society?
But suppose, that it is no longer in my power to promote the interest of the public: suppose, that I am a burden to it: suppose, that my life hinders some person from being much more useful to the public. In such cases my resignation of life must not only be innocent but laudable. And most people, who lie under any temptation to abandon existence, are in some such situation. Those, who have health, or power, or authority, have commonly better reason to be in humor with the world.
A man is engaged in a conspiracy for the public interest; is seized upon suspicion; is threatened with the rack; and knows, from his own weakness, that the secret will be extorted from him: could such a one consult the public interest better than by putting a quick period to a miserable life? This was the case of the famous and brave Strozzi of Florence.
Again, suppose a malefactor justly condemned to a shameful death; can any reason be imagined, why he may not anticipate his punishment, and save himself all the anguish of thinking on its dreadful approaches? He invades the business of providence no more than the magistrate did, who ordered his execution; and his voluntary death is equally advantageous to society, by ridding it of a pernicious member.
That suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves, no one can question, who allows, that age, sickness, or misfortune may render life a burden, and make it worse even than annihilation. I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death, that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it. And though perhaps the situation of a man’s health or fortune did not seem to require this remedy, we may at least be assured, that any one, who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to it, was cursed with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper, as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortunes.
If suicide be supposed a crime, it is only cowardice can impel us to it. If it be no crime, both prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence, when it becomes a burden. It is the only way, that we can then be useful to society, by setting as example, which, if imitated, would preserve to every one his chance for happiness in life, and would effectually free him from all danger of misery.
1 It would be easy to prove, that suicide is as lawful under the Christian dispensation as it was to the heathens. There is not a single text of scripture, which prohibits it. That great infallible rule of faith and practice, which must control all philosophy and human reasoning, has left us, in this particular, to our natural liberty. Resignation to providence is, indeed, recommended in scripture; but that implies only submission to ills, which are unavoidable, not to such as may be remedied by prudence or courage. Thou shalt not kill is evidently meant to exclude only the killing of others, over whose life we have no authority. That this precept like most of the scripture precepts, must be modified by reason and common sense, is plain from the practice of magistrates, who punish criminals capitally, notwithstanding the letter of this law. But were this commandment ever so express against suicide, it could now have no authority. For all the law of Moses is abolished, except so far as it is established by the law of nature; and we have already endeavored to prove, that suicide is not prohibited by that law. In all cases, Christians and heathens are precisely upon the same footing; and if Cato and Brutus, Arria and Portia acted heroically, those who now imitate their example ought to receive the same praises from posterity. The power of committing suicide is regarded by Pliny as an advantage which men possess even above the deity himself. Deus non sibi potest mortem consciscere, si velit, quod homini dedit optimum in tantis vitae paenis. [Although God cannot inflict death upon himself, even if he would, he has given this to man as the best course in life’s great pains.] Lib. ii. Cap. 7.
TO JOHN HOME OF NINEWELLS
Oct. 4, 1746
Our first warlike attempt has been unsuccessful, though without any loss or dishonour. The public rumor must certainly have informed you, that being detained in the channel, till it was too late to go to America, the Ministry, who were willing to make some advantage of so considerable a sea and land armament, sent us to seek adventures on the coast of France. Though both the general and admiral were totally unacquainted with every part of the coast, without pilots, guides or intelligence of any kind, and even without the common maps of the country; yet being assured there were no regular troops near this whole coast, they hoped it was not impossible but something might be successfully undertaken. They bent their course to Port l’Orient, a fine town on the coast of Brittany, the seat of the French East India Trade, and which about 20 years ago, was but a mean contemptible village…
While we lay at Ploemeur, a village about a league from L’Orient, there happened in our family one of the most tragical stories I ever heard of, than which nothing ever gave me more concern. I know not if ever you heard of Major [Alexander] Forbes [of the 42nd Foot, the Black Watch; gazetted Captain, May 1745], a brother of Sir Arthur’s. He was, and was esteemed a man of greatest sense, honour, modesty, mildness, and equality of temper in the world. His learning was very great for a man of any profession, be a prodigy for a soldier. His bravery had been tried and was unquestioned. He had exhausted himself with fatigue and hunger for two days, so that he was obliged to leave the camp, and come to our quarters, where I took the utmost care of him, as there was a great friendship betwixt us. He expressed vast anxiety that he should be obliged to leave his duty, and fear, least his honour should suffer by it. I endeavored to quiet his mind as much as possible, and thought I had left him tolerably composed at night; but returning to his room early next morning, I found him with small remains of life, wallowing in his own blood, with the arteries of his arm cut asunder. I immediately sent for a surgeon, got a bandage tied to his arm and recovered him entirely to his senses and understanding. He lived above four and twenty hours after, and I had several conversations with him. Never a man expressed a more steady contempt of life nor more determined philosophical principles, suitable to his exit. He begged of me to unloosen his bandage and hasten his death, as the last act of friendship I could show him: but alas! we live not in Greek or Roman times. He told me, that he knew, he could not live a few days: but if he did, as soon as he became his own master, he would take a more expeditious method, which none of his friends could prevent. I die, says he, from a jealousy of honor, perhaps too delicate; and do you think, if it were possible for me to live, I would now consent to it, to be a gazing-stock to the foolish world. I am too far advanced to return. And if life was odious to me before, it must be doubly so at present. He became delirious a few hours before he died. He had wrote a short letter to his brother above ten hours before he cut his arteries. This we found on the table.
Quiberon Bay in Brittany