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ON SUICIDE.



As far as I can see, it is only the followers of monotheistic, that is
of Jewish, religions that regard suicide as a crime. This is the more
striking as there is no forbiddance of it, or even positive disapproval
of it, to be found either in the New Testament or the Old; so that
teachers of religion have to base their disapprobation of suicide on
their own philosophical grounds; these, however, are so bad that they
try to compensate for the weakness of their arguments by strongly
expressing their abhorrence of the act--that is to say, by abusing it.
We are told that suicide is an act of the greatest cowardice, that it is
only possible to a madman, and other absurdities of a similar nature; or
they make use of the perfectly senseless expression that it is
"_wrong_," while it is perfectly clear that no one has such indisputable
right over anything in the world as over his own person and life.
Suicide, as has been said, is computed a crime, rendering
inevitable--especially in vulgar, bigoted England--an ignominious
burial and the confiscation of the property; this is why the jury almost
always bring in the verdict of insanity. Let one's own moral feelings
decide the matter for one. Compare the impression made upon one by the
news that a friend has committed a crime, say a murder, an act of
cruelty or deception, or theft, with the news that he has died a
voluntary death. Whilst news of the first kind will incite intense
indignation, the greatest displeasure, and a desire for punishment or
revenge, news of the second will move us to sorrow and compassion;
moreover, we will frequently have a feeling of admiration for his
courage rather than one of moral disapproval, which accompanies a wicked
act. Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relatives, who have
voluntarily left this world? And are we to think of them with horror as
criminals? _Nego ac pernego_! I am rather of the opinion that the clergy
should be challenged to state their authority for stamping--from the
pulpit or in their writings--as a _crime_ an act which has been
committed by many people honoured and loved by us, and refusing an
honourable burial to those who have of their own free will left the
world. They cannot produce any kind of Biblical authority, nay, they
have no philosophical arguments that are at all valid; and it is
_reasons_ that we want; mere empty phrases or words of abuse we cannot
accept. If the criminal law forbids suicide, that is not a reason that
holds good in the church; moreover, it is extremely ridiculous, for what
punishment can frighten those who seek death? When a man is punished for
trying to commit suicide, it is his clumsy failure that is punished.

The ancients were also very far from looking at the matter in this
light. Pliny says: "_Vitam quidem non adeo expetendam censemus, ut
quoque modo trahenda sit. Quisquis es talis, aeque moriere, etiam cum
obscoenus vixeris, aut nefandus. Quapropter hoc primum quisque in
remediis animi sui habeat: ex omnibus bonis, quae homini tribuit natura,
nullum melius esse tempestiva morte: idque in ea optimum, quod illam
sibi quisque praestare poterit_." He also says: "_Ne Deum quidem posse
omnia. Namque nec sibi potest mortem consciscere, si velit, quod homini
dedit optimum in taniis vitae poenis_," etc.

In Massilia and on the island of Ceos a hemlock-potion was offered in
public by the magistrate to those who could give valid reasons for
quitting this life. And how many heroes and wise men of ancient times
have not ended their lives by a voluntary death! To be sure, Aristotle
says "Suicide is a wrong against the State, although not against the
person;" Stobæus, however, in his treatise on the Peripatetic ethics
uses this sentence: _[Greek: pheukton de ton bion gignesthai tois men
agathois en tais agan atychiais tois de kakois kai en tais agan
eutychiais]. (Vitam autem relinquendam esse bonis in nimiis quidem
miseriis pravis vero in nimium quoque secundis_) And similarly: [Greek:
Dio kai gamaesein, kai paidopoiaesesthai, kai politeusesthai], etc.;
[Greek: kai katholou taen aretaen aokounta kai menein en to bio, kai
palin, ei deoi, pote di anankas apallagaesesthai, taphaes pronoaesanta]
etc. _(Ideoque et uxorem ducturum, et liberos procreaturum, et ad
civitatem accessurum,_ etc.; _atque omnino virtutem colendo tum vitam
servaturum, tum iterum, cogente necessitate, relicturum,_ etc.) And we
find that suicide was actually praised by the Stoics as a noble and
heroic act, this is corroborated by hundreds of passages, and especially
in the works of Seneca. Further, it is well known that the Hindoos often
look upon suicide as a religious act, as, for instance, the
self-sacrifice of widows, throwing oneself under the wheels of the
chariot of the god at Juggernaut, or giving oneself to the crocodiles in
the Ganges or casting oneself in the holy tanks in the temples, and so
on. It is the same on the stage--that mirror of life. For instance, in
the famous Chinese play, _L'Orphelin de la Chine_,[19] almost all the
noble characters end by suicide, without indicating anywhere or it
striking the spectator that they were committing a crime. At bottom it
is the same on our own stage; for instance, Palmira in _Mahomet_,
Mortimer in _Maria Stuart_, Othello, Countess Terzky. Is Hamlet's
monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely states that
considering the nature of the world, death would be certainly
preferable, if we were sure that by it we should be annihilated. But
_there lies the rub_! But the reasons brought to bear against suicide by
the priests of monotheistic, that is of Jewish religions, and by those
philosophers who adapt themselves to it, are weak sophisms easily
contradicted.[20] Hume has furnished the most thorough refutation of
them in his _Essay on Suicide_, which did not appear until after his
death, and was immediately suppressed by the shameful bigotry and gross
ecclesiastical tyranny existing in England. Hence, only a very few
copies of it were sold secretly, and those at a dear price; and for this
and another treatise of that great man we are indebted to a reprint
published at Basle. That a purely philosophical treatise originating
from one of the greatest thinkers and writers of England, which refuted
with cold reason the current arguments against suicide, must steal about
in that country as if it were a fraudulent piece of work until it found
protection in a foreign country, is a great disgrace to the English
nation. At the same time it shows what a good conscience the Church has
on a question of this kind. The only valid moral reason against suicide
has been explained in my chief work. It is this: that suicide prevents
the attainment of the highest moral aim, since it substitutes a real
release from this world of misery for one that is merely apparent. But
there is a very great difference between a mistake and a crime, and it
is as a crime that the Christian clergy wish to stamp it. Christianity's
inmost truth is that suffering (the Cross) is the real purpose of life;
hence it condemns suicide as thwarting this end, while the ancients,
from a lower point of view, approved of it, nay, honoured it. This
argument against suicide is nevertheless ascetic, and only holds good
from a much higher ethical standpoint than has ever been taken by moral
philosophers in Europe. But if we come down from that very high
standpoint, there is no longer a valid moral reason for condemning
suicide. The extraordinarily active zeal with which the clergy of
monotheistic religions attack suicide is not supported either by the
Bible or by any valid reasons; so it looks as if their zeal must be
instigated by some secret motive. May it not be that the voluntary
sacrificing of one's life is a poor compliment to him who said, [Greek:
panta kala lian]?[21]

In that case it would be another example of the gross optimism of these
religions denouncing suicide, in order to avoid being denounced by it.

* * * * *

As a rule, it will be found that as soon as the terrors of life outweigh
the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life. The resistance
of the terrors of death is, however, considerable; they stand like a
sentinel at the gate that leads out of life. Perhaps there is no one
living who would not have already put an end to his life if this end had
been something that was purely negative, a sudden cessation of
existence. But there is something positive about it, namely, the
destruction of the body. And this alarms a man simply because his body
is the manifestation of the will to live.

Meanwhile, the fight as a rule with these sentinels is not so hard as it
may appear to be from a distance; in consequence, it is true, of the
antagonism between mental and physical suffering. For instance, if we
suffer very great bodily pain, or if the pain lasts a long time, we
become indifferent to all other troubles: our recovery is what we desire
most dearly. In the same way, great mental suffering makes us insensible
to bodily suffering: we despise it. Nay, if it outweighs the other, we
find it a beneficial distraction, a pause in our mental suffering. And
so it is that suicide becomes easy; for the bodily pain that is bound up
with it loses all importance in the eyes of one who is tormented by
excessive mental suffering. This is particularly obvious in the case of
those who are driven to commit suicide through some purely morbid and
discordant feeling. They have no feelings to overcome; they do not need
to rush at it, but as soon as the keeper who looks after them leaves
them for two minutes they quickly put an end to their life.

* * * * *

When in some horrid and frightful dream we reach the highest pitch of
terror, it awakens us, scattering all the monsters of the night. The
same thing happens in the dream of life, when the greatest degree of
terror compels us to break it off.

* * * * *

Suicide may also be looked upon as an experiment, as a question which
man puts to Nature and compels her to answer. It asks, what change a
man's existence and knowledge of things experience through death? It is
an awkward experiment to make; for it destroys the very consciousness
that awaits the answer.

FOOTNOTES:

[19] Translated by St. Julien, 1834.

[20] See my treatise on the _Foundation of Morals_, § 5.