Essay on Suicide.
Melbourne: Printed by Robert Bell, 97 Little Collins Street East.
In this paper I propose to consider, not so much suicide itself, as the judgment of it, and of those who commit it, which is commonly formed; and how far that judgment is logical and true. To do this it will be necessary to consider suicide itself to a certain extent, as the object of that judgment. But suicide itself can possess but slight interest for those who are not tempted to commit it; which I trust will always be our own case. For it is certain that no one ever committed or was tempted to commit suicide, unless under circumstances of acute painfulness, or in a state of morbid excitation almost equivalent. But we judge our neighbours every minute in the day, and almost mechanically. That is, we condemn or approve without subjecting every decision to the rigid scrutiny of reason; but our ordinary hasty judgments are unconsciously determined in accordance with principles arrived at when we do trouble ourselves to consider particular cases carefully. Of so much the more importance is it then to do so correctly. It is my own impression that there is no point on which the popular judgment is more fallacious and less digested than on that of suicide and its victims; and I think that the fallacy which underlies the matter commonly misleads men in such a multiplicity of other instances, but is so much more susceptible of clear exposure in this than in them, that time and attention bestowed upon the careful consideration of this topic may be attended with particularly beneficial results.
Let us begin at the beginning: what is the cause not only of suicide, but of all men's acts? Indisputably pleasure and pain; and of these pain is chief. For pleasurable conditions are often enhanced by passivity, but pain is urgent and will not be denied;—action is imperative. All man's natural exterior covering is more or less delicately sensitive to impressions, which produce sensations painful or pleasant, and thus constitute his motives to action. It is indeed difficult to conceive how without a sensation he could acquire a motive to action at all. In fact, he has no other way of receiving impulses to action. By his sensations only does he learn what is hurtful, and what is beneficial to his system. How else could he know that fire burns, or that blows bruise? or what is good or bad for food or life? Why do we like people of what we call good feeling, but because we feel and know that those feelings produce corresponding actions?
But not only do we thus recognise what is good or bad for us, but we thus, and thus only learn how to act. Having thus been taught what is painful and pleasurable, we thus, and thus only learn how to reproduce the pleasure, and how to elude the pain. This is our only warranty for any action. Why do we eat or drink? We feel the sensation of hunger or thirst; we distinguish by experience the appropriate aliment; we seize it, and call it good if it answer to our anticipations. And "To enjoy is to obey," says Pope. If cold, we light a fire; if too hot, we seek the shade. In every case the pleasure realised or the pain avoided, is not only the reason page 4 of the act, but its justification. Existence is itself almost unexceptionally a pleasure, and to the sum; extent how tenacious are we of existence! How inestimable a good it is regarded, may be judged from the amount of pain which it will outweigh.
But in some rare instances we find that these infallible monitors, our sensations, advertise us that existence (the balance of pain over pleasure being overwhelming) is an evil, and non-existence a good; and if we act then, otherwise than in accordance with our feelings and convictions, do we not do violence to our nature? What do I say? Is it possible for us to act otherwise than as our sensations indicate to us the best course to avoid the pain and secure the pleasure? Certainly not. It is not competent for us to act otherwise than as our nature prompts and impels. And if there be any truth or significance in the principle that "to enjoy is to obey" it must be applicable to all cases; and when our enjoyment is to be found only in non-existence, our obedience must inevitably be involved in it also. Indeed, if anything more so:—for our existence is to a great extent involuntary; and the term obedience is indisputably more applicable to a voluntary than an involuntary act, whether the object be the maintenance or the destruction of our life.
The same argument has been well applied by Rousseau to the theological aspect of the question; and as the principal objections to suicide are generally advanced on theological grounds, I may not pass them over.
First then, there is no prohibition of suicide from Genesis to Revelations. Was this because it was a sore subject with the author '? Pliny says that there is one invaluable privilege which man has, but God has not; that of terminating his own existence. I think if any being should hate hi life, it should be the creator of a hell, and of evil. If he hates it, and cannot get rid of it, how awful is his punishment! The Bible however does not forbid suicide. "Thou shalt not kill" was evidently intended to prohibit encroachment on the rights of others; the taking from them their existence, their highest good. And when the destruction of another is considered a good for the social body, both nature and law not only justify, but command it.
But it is said, we have no right—it is a crime—to quit the post assigned us by Providence. On exactly the same principle we can have no right, and it should be equally a crime, to leave the country or the spot where we were born, or where we find ourselves at any time. We have no justification for doing so, but the very one I at first adduced:—that our sensations and experience lead us to deem it best for us to do so. To say that Providence placed us here, is only a mysterious and irrelevant way of saying "we are here as we say" God knows," when we merely mean "me don't know." And those who say so will surely not demur to say that our sensations are equally bestowed by Providence. Then as Providence notifies to us the propriety of our going or staying, solely through the sensations by which alone we can discover it—when we are similarly convinced that non-existence is preferable to existence—on what ground can it be maintained that suicide is not the will of Providence? In fact, if Providence governs all, the success of a suicide proves decisively that his act was as much the dispensation page 5 of Providence as his any other act, or his death by lightning. But, as Rousseau points out, if Providence sends you a plague or a famine, or any ordinary death, you resist the dispensation with all your force, and elude it if you can. The suicide has the evidence of the like senses that it is the apparent wish of Providence that he should cease to exist; but he possesses the superior merit of obedience. Rousseau also shows how unreasonable it is to accuse the suicide of a desire to withdraw himself from a post of duty and from the governance of God. For on the theory of a God and a future life is it not impossible for him to do so? He simply steps into another post, as much or more under the government of God; by many supposed to involve greater, instead of less capacity and scope, and therefore more responsibility. What is death on this theory? Merely passing from one room to another—from a scene where circumstances indicate, in the only way in which we can receive such an intimation, that we are no longer required, to another to which we appear to be invited, and where therefore we may confidently hope to be enabled to act with better effect. If Providence gives us an appetite and food, and we consider that that justifies our using both,—if when Providence causes the sun to heat our heads we consider ourselves justified in interposing an umbrella to stop the inconvenience,—or if we scruple not but hasten to sacrifice a gangrenous limb for the sake of preserving the life we value more:—why, when life becomes painful, should we not rocognise it as an intimation to move to a more favorable field of exertion, and why hesitate to use the means which a careful Providence has placed within our reach?
It is however, obvious that suicides are caused by the overwhelming pressure of circumstances, and the imagined impossibility of coping with or improving them. In every case dissatisfaction with existence is the reason for the act; and if it were in the conscious power of the unfortunate victim to make his existence agreeable, or tolerable otherwise, we may safely assume that that alternative would be preferred. Knowing as we do, and feeling the almost inexhaustible power and elasticity of the love of life, it is difficult if not impossible to realise the appalling load of hopeless despair which must oppress and excruciate the sensibilities of a sane suicide, before that energy by which alone the human race is maintained and continued, can in him find no employment so tolerable as its own destruction. How all the sweets and delights of life, which make the love of it so strong in all animated nature, must be converted into gall and wormwood! Is there anything so calculated to arouse the liveliest pity, the most compassionate sympathy? For who can assure himself against similar conditions?
Yet human ill nature has stigmatised the act as a voluntary crime of the deepest dye! It has been imagined not only to blacken the memory of the unfortunate victim himself, but also, by an excess of illogical stupidity, to injure the fame of those relatives who would have done all in their power to prevent it! This happily has not been general. Thus to impute turpitude to unfortunate misery, is pre-eminently a blot on Anglo-Saxon institutions. To the disgrace of England be it said that she was among the last of the nations of Europe to relax the savage severity of the laws on this point. Sui- page 6 cide has not been the subject of legislation in France or in most other states for nearly a century. How is it that in England such a stultification should have been maintained until 1824? For there, till then, it was actually attempted with impotent spite to punish the poor victim after he was dead, by burying him at a cross road with a stake driven through his body; but malice, not being satiated by that, was vented upon his sorrowing relatives by confiscating his property!
Surely it must be obvious that punishments of unsuccessful suicides can have but one tendency:—that of making them more careful to avoid failure on the next occasion. It is self-evident that nothing could be more fatuitously absurd than to endeavor to punish abortive suicidal attempts. It is like telling a prisoner that if he escape, you will punish him for doing so, if you don't catch him! In every way the conventional judgment in such cases seems to be diametrically opposed to the most fundamental principles of humanity and common sense.
What can be the cause of all this unreason, contradiction, and cruel illiberality? It seems to me that it is entirely attributable to that abominable spirit of intolerance which will not permit our neighbours to act, speak, or think otherwise than as we approve. For that intolerant spirit it appears to me that Christianity, that essentially intolerant religion, is mainly responsible. But this should not be carelessly stated without reasons given, for intolerance is not overtly taught by Christianity. The true cause of Christian intolerance seems clearly chargeable to monotheism. For when people cheerfully allowed their neighbours to have various gods of their own, there was no ground for intolerance of their religions. But when once a man feels bound to assert that his god, and therefore his religion, is the only true one, and that he and his god are jealous of all others, intolerance obviously becomes the mainspring of his conduct, so far as he is pious. This is corroborated by the fact that the other monotheistic religions, the Jewish and the Mahometan, are as intolerant as the Christian.
Religion is notoriously a common cause of insanity, as well as of suicide. The reason is plain. Instead of learning from experience and reason that his happiness depends solely on the practice of virtue—which consists in understanding and utilising to his utmost the circumstances in which he is placed, and resolutely appropriating knowledge and its advantages wherever he may find them—man is too early taught to distrust and repudiate his most valuable faculties and important privileges, and to rely for guidance and strength upon an imaginary power, which of course fails him entirely whenever it is put to the test. If favorably circumstanced, or blessed with a naturally resolute temperament, he may get through life without a very serious mishap; but too often under less fortunate conditions, repeated failure confirms his fatal distrust of himself, produces despair; and he is driven and tossed like a rudderless ship upon the waves of life, and is ultimately lost in the storms of insanity or the whirlpool of self-destruction.
In what is England behind the foremost nations of Europe? Is it in energy, intelligence, or wealth? No. But she is pious. Though her national institutions are free, in conventional opinion the bulk of her people are slaves. The personal and social freedom of action of page 7 individuals doubtless leads them to criticise their neighbours, and to repel interference with their own opinions and prejudices; but it is their intolerant religion, based upon the absurd notion of the freedom of the will, which leads them to condemn as intentionally immoral, what is simply produced by the pressure of inflexible circumstances.
It is surely contrary to English, or any principles of justice, to condemn any man unheard. Could we only hear and realise the history of a poor suicide, could we know and understand all the cruel circumstances which inevitably caused his act, I imagine that nothing further would be necessary to induce us to retract our condemnation; particularly when we reflect how little our own circumstances arc within our choice. When once the causes of all human action are discerned to be necessary in their operation, no room is left for blame. It is inapplicable. For it essentially implies that error is not necessary, but is avoidable under identical antecedent conditions.
We naturally and instinctively hate death; and if we hate and recoil from misery less, it is simply because it is generally the lesser evil. But surely the unfortunate, unwilling victim of misery—aggravated to such a degree of torture that even hateful death appears comparatively a blessing—should be the object rather of sympathy and compassion than of blame. It should require no further argument to prove that to blame or to hate a poor suicide involves a total misconception and confusion of ideas.
The only plausible argument for endeavoring to discourage, or even deprecating suicide, seems to me to be, that were it to become prevalent population would decrease; and the race must become extinct if the practice were to become general. But apprehensions on this score are utterly idle and baseless. The natural inevitable law of demand and supply amply guarantees us against such a contingency. Suicides have never been common except where population was condensed and misery great—where life, being redundant, possessed a smaller value, and was comparatively at a discount. It is unknown in sparsely peopled countries, while in China, Japan and India, and in large crowded cities, it is, I believe, prevalent in proportion more or less to the density and pressure of population. Other causes arc of course operative. Intemperance I find causes (at Geneva for instance) one twelfth of recorded suicides. By far the greater numbers are attributed to disease. I presume that in most of these cases death is known to be inevitably near, when I think suicide, to avoid pain, is wise, rather than otherwise. The suicide of the Jews at York (said to have been 500 in number) in the reign of Richard the First, was in my opinion clearly an act of wisdom. For I imagine that the alternative would have been inevitably worse. It was usual then for Christians to commence intercourse with Jews under such circumstances, by drawing their teeth—not with chloroform or ether spray, not with skill or tenderness, but probably with a hammer and a cold chisel—the object being to give, not to relieve the toothache. This instance alone proves unanswerably that circumstances can justify suicide; and in my mind in every case, the circumstances which cause, must therefore justify, suicide, or any other act. The consequences alone of any act determine its goodness or badness. By men, of course, the consequences can only be divined page 8 from appearances. The wise foresee them best, but are frequently mistaken. All have to accept them, foreseen or not. It is clear, however, that every man endeavors to foresee them as accurately as possible, whatever object he may have in view. To offer arguments for or against suicide to anyone not driven by exceptional circumstances to contemplate its execution seems utterly idle; and entirely presumptuous to those who are. For to have any weight, arguments must have special reference to the particular case; and even then, they can have no efficacy comparable to that of whatever 'distracts the mind from the subject; for all depends upon the state of mind of the man himself, which if he could, he would scarcely communicate. This is a conclusive reason why no other man is, or can be, competent to condemn the act, even as an error of judgment; for that state of mind can only be guessed at by others, even by the results.*
My only object in considering this subject was to seize a favorable opportunity of deprecating that pernicious spirit of intolerance which leads men to presume to judge and blame their neighbours; causes hatred and all uncharitableness; intimidates and fetters thus the human mind; and is the greatest obstacle to its development and improvement. For activity is the one thing needful, even when erroneously applied. We learn most from our errors. New troths scarcely strike us, unless they explain and teach the remedy for former faults. Even the greatest and most fatal errors, involving the destruction of those who commit them, are of more inestimable value to others who are active-minded enough to profit by them, than perhaps even their own. Mental activity should be promoted and encouraged to the utmost. Happy those who are so constituted and circumstanced that their activity is always in the best direction! Let us pity and be grateful to those who are less fortunate; by whose errors we profit; who are sacrificed to the general good. If they deserve no credit, because their sacrifice was involuntary, they are clearly not proper objects of blame for missing the mark which we, by better fortune, may have hit. Inactivity is the only thing really to be deprecated; for by inactivity no good can accrue to anyone.
And let us remember always that charity and reason are thus at last in harmony. It marks an important step in the history of the progress of the human mind, when it is discerned that charity and blame (or condemnation of others) are essentially incompatible. There is no place or ground for uncharitableness with those who have once comprehensively grasped the idea of causation; who apprehend that men's actions, being necessitated, must be blameless; that activity is virtue, and that reason is its highest form.
R. Bell, Steam Printer, 97 Little Collins Street East, Melbourne.
* As in the debate 1 was accused of advocating suicide, I would say that if asked 'whether I advocate or deprecate it, I reply "Never be miserable if you can help it, still less commit suicide;" but 1 think it just as idle and impertinent to urge upon the miserable, as upon the happy, any arguments for or against it.