Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, novelist, and political essayist, profoundly influenced the Enlightenment period during which he lived and the Romantic movement and French Revolution to come. He was born in Geneva in 1712; his mother died within days of his birth. He had almost no formal education. He was apprenticed unsuccessfully to both a notary public and an engraver, and committed a series of petty thefts and other breaches of discipline that earned him beatings but did not change his behavior; they served largely to reinforce his hatred of authority. Rousseau finally found a patron in the wealthy baroness Mme. de Warens, with whom he lived at Annecy and at Chambéry. In about 1743, he took as his mistress an illiterate inn servant, Thérèse le Vasseur, with whom he fathered five children, all placed in a foundling hospital. Rousseau wrote an opera and papers on musical notation, for which he received some recognition. He published two influential essays in response to a competition established by the Academy of Dijon, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) and the Discourse upon the Origin and Foundations of Inequality (1755). Other important works by Rousseau include Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), from which the selection here is taken, A Treatise on the Social Contract (1762), Emile, or On Education (1762), banned in Geneva and Paris, and burned publicly when it was first published; and his remarkably intimate and ultimately influential Confessions, published posthumously.
Rousseau’s life and work were filled with controversy. Some of his works were banned in parts of Europe and burned in others; he was forced to flee arrest in Paris; and he experienced growing persecution during his travels in Europe. He eventually returned to Paris where he lived as a music copyist. Of a suspicious and paranoid temperament, he quarreled with his close friend David Hume [q.v.] and died at least partly insane in a cottage in Ermenonville in 1778.
Julie, or the New Heloise is an epistolary novel, one among the many works expressing Rousseau’s conviction that the Enlightenment’s confidence in rational, scientific progress was misguided and that human culture and law were artificial, man-made constructs that created inequality and took humankind away from its natural, happier state. In the novel, two characters debate the issues in suicide: a young man, potentially suicidal, defending a secular argument in favor of suicide much influenced by classical literature and Stoicism, and the more senior Lord Edward Bomston, who uses religious and friendship-based covenantal considerations to argue against it. “Listen to me, mad youth,” Bomston says in his reply to the young man’s letter, in a much-repeated bit of advice, “let me teach you to love life. Every time you are tempted to exit it, say to yourself: ‘Let me do one more good deed before I die’ ”—advice that Bomston believes will deter any morally decent human being.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, or the New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 6, trs. Philip Steward and Jean Vaché. Hanover and London: Dartmouth College; University Press of New England, 1997, letters 21 and 22, pp. 310-323.
from JULIE, OR THE NEW HELOISE
To Milord Edward
Yes, Milord, it is true; my soul is oppressed with the weight of life. For a long time it has been a burden to me; I have lost everything that could have endeared it to me, only the sorrows remain to me. But they say I have no right to dispose of it without an order from the one who gave it me. I also know that it belongs to you in more than one way. Your ministrations have saved it twice and your kindnesses constantly preserve it. I will never dispose of it without being sure of my right to do so without crime, nor so long as the slightest hope remains of employing it for you.
You used to say I was necessary to you; why did you deceive me? Since we have been in London, far from thinking of ways to make me useful to you, all you do is look after me. What superfluous precautions you take! Milord, as you know, I hate crime even more than life; I worship the eternal Being; I owe you everything, I love you, I hold to you alone on earth; friendship, duty can chain a miserable man to earth: pretexts and sophisms will never do so. Enlighten my reason, speak to my heart; I am ready to hear you: but remember that despair cannot easily be fooled.
You want reasoning: well then let us reason. You want the deliberation scaled to the importance of the question under discussion, I agree to that. Let us seek truth peaceably, tranquilly. Let us discuss the general proposition as if it concerned someone else. Robeck wrote an apology for willful death before he killed himself. I do not mean to write a book as he did and I do not find his very satisfactory, but I hope to imitate his detachment in this discussion.
I have long meditated on this grave subject. That you must know, for you are aware of what has happened and I am still alive. The more I reflect on it, the more I find that the question comes down to this fundamental proposition: to seek what is good and flee what is ill for oneself insofar as it offends no one else is the right of nature. When our life is an ill for us and a good for no one it is therefore permissible to deliver oneself of it. If there is one evident and certain maxim in the world, I think that is it, and if someone managed to overturn it, there is no human deed that could not be made into a crime.
What do our Sophists say about this? First of all they regard life as something that is not ours, because it has been given to us; but it is precisely because it has been given to us that it is ours. Did God not give them two arms? Yet when they fear gangrene they have one cut off, and both, if need be. Precisely the same holds for anyone who believes in the immortality of the soul; for if I sacrifice my body to preserve something more precious which is my body, I sacrifice my body to preserve something more precious which is my well-being. Although all the gifts that Heaven has given us are naturally good things for us, they are only too subject to changing in nature, and to them it added reason to teach us to discern among them. If this rule did not entitle us to choose some and reject others, what use would it be among men?
They turn this insubstantial objection over in a thousand ways. They consider man living on earth as a soldier on sentry duty. God, they say, has placed you in this world, why do you quit it without his leave? But how about you, whom he has placed in your own city, why so you quit it without his leave? Is leave not implicit in ill-being? Wherever he places me, whether in the body, or on the earth, it is to remain there so long as I am well off, and to quit it as soon as I am badly off. Such is the voice of nature and of God. We are to await the order, I grant; but when I die naturally God does not order me to give up this life, he takes it from me: it is by making life unbearable to me that he orders me to give it up. In the first case, I hold out with all my strength, in the second I have the merit of obeying.
Can you imagine how there can be people unjust enough to stigmatize willful death as rebellion against providence, as if one meant to escape its laws? It is not to escape them that one ceases to live, but to carry them out. What! Does God have power only over my body? Is there some place in the universe where some extant being is not under his hand, and will he act less immediately on me, when my purified substance is more of a piece, and more like his own? No, his justice and goodness are my hope, and if I believed the death could remove me from his power, I would no longer wish to die.
That is one of the Phaedo’s Sophisms, full as it otherwise is of sublime truths. If your slave killed himself, says Socrates to Cebes, would you not punish him, if you could, for having unjustly deprived you of your property? Good Socrates, what are you telling us? Does one no longer belong to God after death? That is not it at all, but you should have said: if you burden your slave with a garment that impedes him in the service he owes you, will you punish him for having cast off the garment the better to carry out his service? The great error is to attribute too much importance to life; as if our being depended on it, and after death we were nothing at all. Our life is nothing in God’s eyes; it is nothing in the eyes of reason, it should be nothing in ours, and when we leave our body, we merely lay aside an inconvenient garment. Is that worth such ado? Milord, these declaimers are not in good faith. Absurd and cruel in their reasonings, they make the alleged crime worse as if one were ending one’s existence, and punish it, as if one still existed.
As for the Phaedo, which furnished them the only imposing argument they ever invoked, this question there is treated only very lightly and as it were in passing. Socrates, condemned by an unjust sentence to lose his life within a few hours, had no need to examine very closely whether he had the right to dispose of it. Even if we grant that he actually spoke the words Plato puts in his mouth, believe me, Milord, he would have pondered them more carefully at the point of putting them into practice; and the proof that no good objection to the right to dispose of one’s own life can be drawn from that immortal work is that Cato read it all the way through twice, the very night he departed this world.
These same Sophists ask whether life can ever be an evil? Considering the throng of errors, torments, and vices with which it is filled, one would be much more inclined to ask whether it was ever good? Crime continually besieges the most virtuous man, every moment of his life, he is on the verge of becoming the wicked man’s prey or becoming wicked himself. To struggle and suffer, such is his fate in this world: to do evil and suffer, is that of the dishonest man. In everything else they differ, they have nothing in common but life’s miseries. If you required authorities and facts, I could cite you oracles, wise men’s replies, acts of virtue rewarded by death. Let us leave all that aside, Milord; it is to you I am speaking, and I ask you, what is the principle occupation of the wise man here below, if not to distill himself, so to speak, into the recesses of his soul, and attempt to be dead while he lives? The only means reason has found to spare us humanity’s woes, is it not to detach us from worldly objects and all that is mortal in us, to meditate within ourselves, raise ourselves to sublime contemplations; and if our passions and errors cause our misfortunes, with what zeal ought we not yearn for a condition that delivers us from both? What do these sensual men do by so indiscreetly multiplying their sufferings by their voluptuous delights? They obliterate so to speak their existence by dint of expanding it on earth; they compound the weight of their chains by the number of their attachments; they have no ecstasies but that lay in store for them a thousand bitter deprivations: the more they feel, the more they suffer: the more they plunge into life, the more unhappy they are.
But I am ready to concede that in general, it is if one so wishes a good thing for man to crawl sadly over the surface of the earth: I do not pretend that all of humankind should immolate itself by common consent, nor turn the earth into a vast graveyard. There are, there are indeed some wretched creatures too privileged to follow the common road, and for whom despair and bitter sufferings are nature’s passport. In their case it would be as foolish to believe their life a good as it was for the Sophist Possidonius, tormented with gout, to deny it was an evil. As long as it is good for us to live we desire it strongly, and nothing but the experience of extreme suffering can overcome in us this desire: for we have all received from nature an enormous horror of death, and this horror conceals from our eyes the miseries of human condition. One long endures a painful and doleful life before resigning oneself to relinquishing it; but once the weariness of living overcomes the horror of dying, then life is obviously a great evil, and one cannot too soon be freed from it. Thus, although one cannot identify the precise point where it ceases being a good, at least one knows with certainty that it is an evil long before it so appears to us, and in every rational man the right to relinquish it comes well ahead of the temptation to do so.
This is not all: after denying that life can be an evil, in order to deprive us of our right to do away with it, they then say it is an evil, in order to reproach us for our inability to endure it. According to them it is craven to elude its suffering and pains, and none but cowards precipitate their own death. O Rome, conqueror of the world, what a host of cowards gave thee empire over it! If Arria, Empona, Lucretia are among them, that is because they were women. But Brutus, but Cassius, and thou who shared with the Gods the respect of a dumbfounded world, great and divine Cato, thou whose august and sacred image used to inspire the Romans with a holy zeal and make Tyrants quake, thy proud admirers never thought that one day in the dusty corner of a college, vile Rhetors would prove thou wert a mere coward, for having denied to triumphant crime the tribute of virtue in fetters. Power and greatness of modern writers, how sublime you are; and how intrepid they are with pen in hand! But tell me, brave and valiant hero who so courageously flee the battlefield so you can endure life’s burden longer: when a burning ember happens to fall on this eloquent hand, why do you retract it so suddenly? What! You have the cravenness not to dare bearing the heat of the fire! Nothing, say you, obliges me to bear the ember; and I, who obliges me to bear life? Did it cost providence more effort to engender a man than a straw, and are not the two equally its handiwork?
There is courage, no doubt, in suffering with constancy ills one cannot avoid; but only a fool would willingly suffer those he can elude without doing wrong, and it is often a very great wrong to endure a wrong needlessly. He who is unable to deliver himself from a painful life through a prompt death is like the man who prefers to let a wound fester rather than entrust it to the salutary knife of a surgeon. Come, worthy Parisot, cut off this leg of mine which is going to kill me. I will watch you do it without raising an eyebrow, and let myself be called a coward by the braggart who watches his own leg rot for fear of facing the same operation.
I admit there are duties towards others, which do not allow every man to dispose of himself, but on the other hand how many are there that command it? Let a Magistrate on whom the fatherland’s welfare depends, let a paterfamilias who owes subsistence to his children, let an insolvent debtor who would ruin his creditors, devote themselves to their duty come what may; let a thousand other civil and domestic ties force an honorable unfortunate to bear the misfortune of living, so as to avoid the greater misfortune of being unjust, can one, for that, in completely different circumstances, preserve at the expense of a multitude of wretches a life that is useful solely to the man who dares not die? Kill me, my child, says the decrepit savage to his son who carries him bending under the weight; the enemy is upon us; go fight with your brothers, go save your children, and do not expose your father to falling alive into the hands of those whose relatives he ate. Even if hunger, pains, misery, these domestic enemies worse than savages, allowed a wretched cripple to consume in his bed the bread of a family that can scarcely earn enough for itself; why should the man who has no ties, the man Heaven has reduced to living alone on earth, the man whose wretched existence can yield nothing good, not have at least the right to quit an abode where his moans are bothersome and his sufferings fruitless?
Weight these considerations, Milord; combine all these reasons and you will find that they come down to the simplest of natural rights which a reasonable man never questioned. Indeed, why should it be permissible to be cured of the gout and not of life? Are not the one and the other sent to us by the same hand? If dying is painful, what does that matter? Is it pleasant to take drugs? How many people prefer death to medicine? Proof that nature abhors both. Let them show me why it is more permissible to deliver oneself from a passing illness by using remedies, than from an incurable illness by taking one’s life, or why one is less blameworthy for taking quinine for fever than opium for stones. If we consider the objective, each serves to deliver us from ill-being; if we consider the means, each is equally natural; if we consider their abhorrence, it is equal on both sides; if we consider the master’s will, what illness could one combat that he has not sent upon us? What suffering could one elude that comes not from his hand? What is the point where his power ends, and where one can legitimately resist? Is it then not permissible for us to change the state of anything, because all that is, is as he has willed it? Must one do nothing in this world for fear of violating his laws, and whatever we do can we ever violate them? No Milord, man’s vocation is greater and nobler. God has not breathed life into him in order for him to remain immobile in a perpetual quietism. But he has given him freedom to do good, conscience to will it, and reason to choose it. He has constituted him sole judge of his own acts. He has written in his heart: do what is good for you and harmful to no one. If I feel it is right for me to die, I resist his command by clinging obstinately to life; for by making my death desirable, he instructs me to seek it.
Bomston, I appeal to your wisdom and your candor; what more certain maxims can reason deduce from Religion concerning willful death? If the Christians have established others contrary to them, they have drawn them neither from the principles of their Religion, nor from its unique rule, which is Scripture, but solely from pagan philosophers. Lactantius and Augustine, who first put forward this new doctrine on which neither Jesus Christ nor the Apostles had said a single word, founded themselves solely on the reasoning is the Phaedo which I have already contested; and so it is that the faithful who believe they are following in this the authority of the Gospel, are merely following Plato’s. Indeed, where will one find in the entire Bible a law against suicide, or even a simple disapproval; and is it not quite strange that in the examples of people who have taken their own lives, not a word of blame is found against any of these examples? Furthermore, Samson’s is sanctioned by a wonder that avenges him of his enemies. Would this miracle have been performed to justify a crime; and would this man who lost his strength for having allowed a woman to seduce him have recovered it to commit an authentic crime, as if God himself had wished to deceive mankind?
Thou shalt not kill, says the Decalogue. What follows from this? If this commandment is to be taken literally, one must kill neither evildoers nor enemies; and Moses who brought about the death of so many people had a very poor understanding of his own precept. If there are a few exceptions, the first of them is certainly in favor of willful death, because it is free of violence and injustice, the only two criteria that can make homicide criminal, and because nature has, besides, created sufficient obstacle to it.
But, they further say, suffer patiently the ills that God sends your way; count your pains as a merit. How poorly it is to grasp the spirit of Christianity, to apply its maxims thus! Man is subject to a thousand ills, his life is a web of miseries, and he seems born only to suffering. Of these ills, reason counter to reason, approves. But how small is their sum compared to those he is forced to suffer despite himself! These are the ones a merciful God allows men to count for merit; he accepts as homage freely given the mandatory tribute he imposes on us, and imputes to the benefit of the next life our resignation in this one. Man’s true penitence is imposed on him by nature; if he patiently endures everything he is constrained to endure, he has done in this respect everything that God requires of him, and if anyone is arrogant enough to pretend he can go beyond that, he is a madman who ought to be locked up, or an imposter who ought to be punished. Let us then flee without qualm all the ills we can flee, there will always be only too many left for us to suffer. Let us deliver ourselves without remorse from life itself, once it has become an ill for us; since it is within our power to do so, and since in doing so we offend neither God nor men. If something must be sacrificed to the Supreme Being, is dying nothing? Let us offer to God the death he imposes on us through the voice of reason, and commit peacefully to his bosom our soul which he reclaims from us.
Such are the general precepts that good sense dictates to all men and Religion sanctions.* Let us return to us. You have been willing to open your heart to me; I know your sufferings; you suffer no less than I; your ills like mine are without remedy, and all the more since the laws of honor are more immutable than those of fortune. You endure them, I concede, steadfastly. Virtue sustains you; one step farther; it releases you. You urge me to suffer: Milord, I dare urge you to put an end to your sufferings, and I let you be the judge which of us cherishes the other more.
Why postpone taking a step that must in any case be taken? Shall we wait until old age and years attach us basely to life after taking away its charms, and until we trail about with effort, ignominy, and pain a body crippled and bent over? We are at the age when the soul’s vigor easily releases itself from its fetters, and when man still knows how to die; later on he wailingly lets life be wrested from him. Let us take advantage of a time when the weariness of life makes death desirable; let us beware lest it come with its horrors at the moment when we no longer want it. I remember, there was a moment when I asked Heaven for but an hour, and would have died of despair had I not obtained it. Ah how painful it is to break the ties that bind our hearts to earth, and how it is to give it up as soon as they are broken! I can feel, Milford, that we are both worthy of a dwelling more pure; virtue points us the way, and fate beckons us to seek it. May the friendship that joins us unite us once more in our last hour. O what ecstasy for two true friends to end their days willingly in each other’s arms, to mingle their last sighs, breathe forth at once the two halves of their soul! What pain, what regret can poison their last instants? What do they leave behind in departing the world? They go off together; they leave nothing behind.
Young man, you are being carried away by a blind transport; restrain yourself; do not give counsel while you are seeking it. I have known other ills than yours. My soul is staunch; I am an Englishman, I know how to die, for I know how to live, to suffer like a man. I have seen death at close range, and consider it with too much detachment to go seeking it out. Let us talk about you.
It is true, you were necessary to me; my soul needed yours; your assistance could prove useful to me; your reason could possibly enlighten me in the most importance concern of my life; if I make no use of it, whose fault do you think that is? Where is it? What has become of it? What can you do? What good are you in your present condition? What services can I expect from you? Unreasonable sorrows render you dumb and merciless. You are not a man; you are nothing; and if I did not take into account what you are capable of being, such as you are I see nothing in this world beneath you.
The only proof I need is your Letter itself. Formerly I found sense, truth in you. Your sentiments were straightforward, your reasoning was clear, and I loved you not only by affinity but by choice as another means for me to cultivate wisdom. What have I now found in the reasoning’s of this Letter you seem so smug about? A miserable and perpetual sophism which by the distractions of you reason indicates those of your heart, and which I would not even bother pointing out had I not taken pity on your ranting.
To overthrow all that in a word, I need ask you only one thing. You who believe in God’s existence, the soul’s immortality, and man’s freedom, do not think, no doubt, that an intelligent being receives a body and is placed on earth at random, merely to live, suffer, and die? There is indeed, perhaps, in human life a goal, an end, a moral objective? I beg you to answer me clearly on this point; after which we will take up your letter step by step, and you will blush for having written it.
But let us leave aside general maxims, of which often much ado is made without any of them ever being followed; for there is always in the application some particular circumstances that so changes the state of things that everyone believes himself dispensed from obeying the rule he prescribes to others, and we know full well that any man who posits general maxims expect them to oblige everyone, except himself. Once more let us talk about you.
So you are entitled, in your opinion, to cease living? The proof is a strange one; it is that you want to die. That is to be sure a convenient argument for scoundrels: They must be most obliged to you for the weapons you furnish them; there will no longer be any crimes they will not justify by the temptation to commit them, and once the violence of passion has won out over the horror of crime, in the desire of doing evil they will also see the right to do so.
So you are entitled to cease to live? What I would like to know is whether you have even begun? What! Were you placed on earth to do nothing here? Did Heaven not assign to you along with life a task to fill it? If you have done your day’s work before evening, rest for what remains of the day, that you can do; but let us have a look at how much you have accomplished. What answer do you have ready for the Supreme Judge who will ask for an account of your time? Speak up, what will you tell him? I have seduced an honest maiden. I abandon a friend amidst his troubles. Poor fool! Find me that righteous man who boasts he has lived enough; let me learn from him how one must have borne life so as to have the right to relinquished it.
You enumerate humanity’s ills. You do not blush at exhausting commonplaces rehashed a hundred times, and you say: life is an evil. But, look about, search in the order of things, whether you can find in it any good things that are not admixed with evil. Is this then to say that there is no good in creation, and you confuse what is evil by nature with what suffers evil only by accident? As you yourself have said, man’s passive life is nothing, and concerns only a body from which he will soon be delivered; but his active and moral life, which must influence his whole being, consists in the exercise of his will. Life is an evil for the wicked man who prospers, and a good for the honorable man who is unfortunate: for it is not a passing modification, but its relationship to its objective that makes it good or bad. What are after all these painful sorrows that force you to relinquish it? Do you think that I have not detected beneath your feigned impartiality in counting up the evils of this life the shame of speaking of your own? Heed my advice, do not abandon all your virtues at once. Keep at least your former frankness, and tell your friend openly: I have lost the hope of corrupting an honest woman, so here I am forced to be a man of honor; I would rather die.
You tire of living, and you say: life is an evil. Sooner or later you will be consoled, and you will say: life is good. You will be closer to the truth without reasoning any better: for nothing will have changed but you. That being so, change right away, and since all the evil is in the disposition of your soul, amend you disorderly affections, and do not burn your house down to avoid the bother of putting it in order.
I suffer, you tell me? Is it in my power not to suffer? First, this changes the status of the question; for the problem in not whether you suffer, but whether it is an ill for you to live. Let us go on. You suffer, you must seek to put an end to your suffering. Let us examine whether that calls for dying.
Consider a moment the natural progress of the soul’s ills directly opposite the progress of the body’s, as the two substances are opposite nature. The latter become chronic, worsen with age, and finally destroy this mortal machine. The former, on the contrary, external and temporary alterations of an immortal and simple being, fade away little by little and leave it in its original form which nothing could ever change. Sorrow, woe, regrets, despair are short-lived pains that never take root in the soul, and experience ever belies that sentiment of bitterness that makes us regard our sufferings as eternal. I will say more; I cannot believe that the vices that corrupt us are more ingrained in us than our troubles; not only do I think they disappear with the body that occasions them; but I do not doubt that a longer life could allow men to be reformed, and that several centuries of youth would teach us that there is nothing better than virtue.
However that may be, since most of our physical ills only increase endlessly, excruciating bodily pain, when it is incurable, may justify a man’s disposing of himself: for all his faculties being estranged by pain, and the evil being without remedy, he no longer has use of either his will or his reason; he ceases to be a man before he dies, and by taking his own life merely completes the separation from a body that bogs him down and where already his soul no longer is.
But such is not the case with pains of the soul, which, however acute, always bring the remedy with them. Indeed, what makes any ill intolerable? It is its duration. The operations of surgery are commonly much more cruel than the sufferings they heal; but the ill’s pain is permanent, the operation’s temporary, and we prefer the latter. What need is there then for an operation for pains that are assuaged by their own duration, which alone would make them unbearable? Is it reasonable to apply such violent remedies to ills that fade away by themselves? To anyone who prizes constancy and avoids valuing years more than they are worth, which of two means of delivering himself from the same sufferings is to be preferred, death or time? Wait and you will be healed. What more do you ask?
Ah! It only compounds my suffering to think it will end! The vain sophism of grief! The clever phrase devoid of reason, of accuracy, and perhaps of good faith. What an absurd excuse for despair is the hope of ending one’s misery!* Even supposing this bizarre sentiment, who would not rather sharpen the present pain for a moment with the assurance of seeing it end, as one scrapes a wound to make it scab? And if the pain had a charm that made us love suffering, would not depriving ourselves of it by taking our life be to accomplish at that very instant everything we fear from the future?
Think about that, young man; what are ten, twenty, thirty years to an immortal being? Pain and pleasure pass like a shadow; life is gone in an instant; it is nothing in itself, its worth depends on its use. The good one has done alone remains, and it is through it that life amounts to something.
Therefore say no more that for you it is an evil to live, since it is in your power alone to make it a good, and if it is an evil to have lived, that is another reason to live on. Do not say, either, that you are entitled to die; for it would be as good to say that you are entitled not to be a man, entitled to rebel against the author of your being, and betray your purpose. But when you add that your death does no one harm, are you forgetting that it is to your friend you dare to say this?
Your death does no one harm? I see! To die at our expense hardly matters to you, you count our mourning for nothing. I am not talking now about the rights of friendship, which you dismiss; are there not yet dearer ones* that oblige you to preserve yourself? If there is one person on earth who has loved you enough not to wish to survive you, and whose happiness is incomplete without yours, do you think you owe her nothing? Will your lethal designs once carried out not trouble the peace of soul restored with such difficulty to its original innocence? Do you not fear reopening in this too tender heart wounds that are poorly healed? Do you not fear that your loss will bring about another yet more cruel, by depriving the world and virtue of their worthiest ornament? And if she survives you, do you not fear provoking remorse in her breast, heavier to bear than life? Ungrateful friend, indelicate lover, will you always be preoccupied with yourself? Will you never be mindful of anything but your pains? Are you not at all sensible to the happiness of that which you cherished? And could you not manage to live for her who intended to die with you?
You mention the duties of the magistrate and paterfamilias, and because they are not imposed on you, you think you are completely uncommitted. How about society to which you owe your preservation, your talents, your lights; the fatherland to which you belong, the wretched who need you, do you owe them nothing? Oh what an impeccable enumeration you make! Among the duties you count, you forget only those of man and Citizen. Where is that virtuous patriot who refuses to sell his blood to a foreign prince because he must shed it only for his country, and who now, a desperate man, means to shed it against the express injunction of the laws? The laws, the laws. Young man! Does the wise man scorn them? Guiltless Socrates, out of respect for them was unwilling to leave prison. You do not hesitate to violate them in order to leave life unjustly, and you ask: what harm am I doing?
You try to justify yourself with examples. You dare to cite me Romans! You, Romans! Some right you have to dare pronounce those illustrious names! Tell me, did Brutus die a desperate lover, and did Cato rip out his entrails for his mistress? Petty, feeble man, what is shared between Cato and you? Show me the common measure between that sublime soul and yours. Brash fellow, hush! I fear profaning his name by eulogizing him. Before that holy and august name, every friend of virtue ought to bury his forehead in the dust, and honor in silence the memory of the greatest of men.
How ill chosen your examples are, and what low esteem you hold Romans in, if you think they believed they were entitled to take their lives as soon as they seemed onerous. Look at the prime of the Republic, and see whether you will find there a single virtuous citizen delivering himself thus from the weight of his duties, even after the cruelest of misfortunes. Did Regulus returning to Carthage avert by his death the torments that awaited him? What would Posthumius not have given to enjoy that resource at the Caudine Forks? What effort of courage did the Senate itself not admire in the Consul Varro for having managed to survive his defeat? For what reason did so many Generals willingly allow themselves to be delivered to their enemies, they to whom ignominy was so cruel, and to whom dying was of so little price? It is because they owed their blood, their lives, and their last breath to the fatherland, and because neither shame nor setbacks could turn them aside from that sacred duty. But when the Laws were abolished and the State was a prey to Tyrants, the Citizens reclaimed their natural liberty and their rights over themselves. When Rome was no longer, it was permissible for Romans to cease to exist; they had fulfilled their function on earth, they had lost their fatherland, they were entitled to dispose of themselves, and restore to themselves the liberty they could no longer restore to their country. After using their life in the service of expiring Rome and fighting for law, they died virtuous and great as they had lived, and their death was yet another tribute to the glory of the Roman name, that in none of them should be held up the unworthy spectacle of true Citizens serving a usurper.
But you, who are you? What have you done? Do you think your obscurity is an excuse? Does your weakness exempt you from you duties, and does having neither name nor rank in your Fatherland make you less subject to its laws? Some right you have to dare speak of dying while you owe the use of your life to your fellow men! Know that a death such as you contemplate is dishonorable and devious. It is a larceny committed against mankind. Before you take your leave of it, give it back what it has done for you. But I have no attachments? I am of no use to the world? Philosopher for a day! Have you not learned that you could not take a step on earth without finding some duty to fulfill, and that every man is useful to humanity, by the very fact that he exist?
Listen to me, mad youth; you are dear to me; I pity your errors. If you still have deep in your heart the least sentiment of virtue, come, let me teach you to love life. Every time you are tempted to exit it, say to yourself: “Let me do one more good deed before I die.” Then go find someone needy to assist, someone unfortunate to console, someone oppressed to defend. Reconcile me with the wretched who are too intimidated to approach me; do not fear to squander either my purse or my influence: help yourself; exhaust my fortune, make me rich. If this consideration hold you back today, it will hold you back again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, your whole life long. If it does not; die, you are nothing but an evil man.
* The strange letter for the deliberation in question! Does one reason so peacefully over such a question, when one examines it for oneself? Is the letter a fabrication, or does the Author want nothing more than to be refuted? What could be grounds for doubt is the example of Robeck he cites, and which seems to furnish him a precedent. Robeck deliberated so soberly that he had the patience to write a book, a big book, a good long, ponderous, cold book, and once he had established, as he saw it, that is was permissible to take one’s own life, he did so with the same tranquillity. Let us be wary of prejudices of period and nation. When killing oneself is not in fashion, one imagines that only crazy people kill themselves; all acts of courage are so many fancies to feeble souls; every man judges the others only by himself. Yet have we not many attested examples of men wise on every other count, who, without remorse, without fury, without despair, relinquish life solely because it is a burden to them, and die more tranquilly than they have lived.
* No, Milord, this is not the way to put an end to one’s misery, but to consummate it; one breaks the last ties linking us to happiness. While mourning the person we cherished, we are still attached to the object of our suffering through the suffering itself, and this condition is less awful than being attached to nothing at all.
* Rights dearer than those of the friendship? And it is a sage who says this! But this putative sage was himself in love.NOTES:
- The strange letter for the deliberation in question! Does one reason so peacefully over such a question, when one examines it for oneself? Is the letter a fabrication, or does the Author want nothing more than to be refuted? What could be grounds for doubt is the example
- No, Milord, this is not the way to put an end to one’s misery, but to consummate it; one breaks the last ties linking us to happiness. While mourning the person we cherished, we are still attached to the object of our suffering through the suffering itself, and this condition is less awful than being attached to nothing at all.
- Rights dearer than those of the friendship? And it is a sage who says this! But this putative sage was himself in love.