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,  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.
from ON THE INFLUENCE OF THE PASSIONS
…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.NOTES:
- I am afraid least I be accused of having, in the course of this work, spoken of suicide as an act deserving of praise.
- 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.
from REFLECTIONS ON SUICIDE
To His Highness The Prince Royal of Sweden.
Stockholm, December, 1812.
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?NOTES:
- 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?
- 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.