On Suicide Schopenhauer Essay

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.

As far as I know, none but the votaries of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, look upon suicide as a crime. This is all the more striking, inasmuch as neither in the Old nor in the New Testament is there to be found any prohibition or positive disapproval of it; so that religious teachers are forced to base their condemnation of suicide on philosophical grounds of their own invention. These are so very bad that writers of this kind endeavor to make up for the weakness of their arguments by the strong terms in which they express their abhorrence of the practice; in other words, they declaim against it. They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice; that only a madman could be guilty of it; and other insipidities of the same kind; or else they make the nonsensical remark that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every mail has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.

Suicide, as I have said, is actually accounted a crime; and a crime which, especially under the vulgar bigotry that prevails in England, is followed by an ignominious burial and the seizure of the man’s property; and for that reason, in a case of suicide, the jury almost always brings in a verdict of insanity. Now let the reader’s own moral feelings decide as to whether or not suicide is a criminal act. Think of the impression that would be made upon you by the news that some one you know had committed the crime, say, of murder or theft, or been guilty of some act of cruelty or deception; and compare it with your feelings when you hear that he has met a voluntary death. While in the one case a lively sense of indignation and extreme resentment will be aroused, and you will call loudly for punishment or revenge, in the other you will be moved to grief and sympathy; and mingled with your thoughts will be admiration for his courage, rather than the moral disapproval which follows upon a wicked action. Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relations, who of their own free will have left this world; and are these to be thought of with horror as criminals? Most emphatically, No! I am rather of opinion that the clergy should be challenged to explain what right they have to go into the pulpit, or take up their pens, and stamp as a crime an action which many men whom we hold in affection and honor have committed; and to refuse an honorable burial to those who relinquish this world voluntarily. They have no Biblical authority to boast of, as justifying their condemnation of suicide; nay, not even any philosophical arguments that will hold water; and it must be understood that it is arguments we want, and that we will not be put off with mere phrases or words of abuse. If the criminal law forbids suicide, that is not an argument valid in the Church; and besides, the prohibition is ridiculous; for what penalty can frighten a man who is not afraid of death itself? If the law punishes people for trying to commit suicide, it is punishing the want of skill that makes the attempt a failure.

The ancients, moreover, were very far from regarding the matter in that light. Pliny says: Life is not so desirable a thing as to be protracted at any cost. Whoever you are, you are sure to die, even though your life has been full of abomination and crime. The chief of all remedies for a troubled mind is the feeling that among the blessings which Nature gives to man, there is none greater than an opportune death; and the best of it is that every one can avail himself of it.1 And elsewhere the same writer declares: Not even to God are all things possible; for he could not compass his own death, if he willed to die, and yet in all the miseries of our earthly life, this is the best of his gifts to man.2 Nay, in Massilia and on the isle of Ceos, the man who could give valid reasons for relinquishing his life, was handed the cup of hemlock by the magistrate; and that, too, in public.3 And in ancient times, how many heroes and wise men died a voluntary death. Aristotle,4 it is true, declared suicide to be an offence against the State, although not against the person; but in Stobaeus’ exposition of the Peripatetic philosophy there is the following remark: The good man should flee life when his misfortunes become too great; the bad man, also, when he is too prosperous. And similarly: So he will marry and beget children and take part in the affairs of the State, and, generally, practice virtue and continue to live; and then, again, if need be, and at any time necessity compels him, he will depart to his place of refuge in the tomb.5 And we find that the Stoics actually praised suicide as a noble and heroic action, as hundreds of passages show; above all in the works of Seneca, who expresses the strongest approval of it. As is well known, the Hindoos look upon suicide as a religious act, especially when it takes the form of self-immolation by widows; but also when it consists in casting oneself under the wheels of the chariot of the god at Juggernaut, or being eaten by crocodiles in the Ganges, or being drowned in the holy tanks in the temples, and so on. The same thing occurs on the stage — that mirror of life. For example, in L’Orphelin de la Chine6 a celebrated Chinese play, almost all the noble characters end by suicide; without the slightest hint anywhere, or any impression being produced on the spectator, that they are committing a crime. And in our own theatre it is much the same — Palmira, for instance, in Mahomet, or Mortimer in Maria Stuart, Othello, Countess Terzky.7 Is Hamlet’s monologue the meditation of a criminal? He merely declares that if we had any certainty of being annihilated by it, death would be infinitely preferable to the world as it is. But there lies the rub!

1 Hist. Nat. Lib. xxviii., 1.]

2 Loc. cit. Lib. ii. c. 7.]

3 3 Valerius Maximus; hist. Lib. ii., c. 6, § 7 et 8. Heraclides Ponticus; fragmenta de rebus publicis, ix. Aeliani variae historiae, iii., 37. Strabo; Lib. x., c. 5, 6.]

4Eth. Nichom., v. 15.]

5 Stobaeus. Ecl. Eth.. ii., c. 7, pp. 286, 312]

6 Traduit par St. Julien, 1834.]

7Translator’s Note. — Palmira: a female slave in Goethe’s play of Mahomet. Mortimer: a would-be lover and rescuer of Mary in Schiller’s Maria Stuart. Countess Terzky: a leading character in Schiller’s Wallenstein’s Tod.]

The reasons advanced against suicide by the clergy of monotheistic, that is to say, Jewish religions, and by those philosophers who adapt themselves thereto, are weak sophisms which can easily be refuted.8 The most thorough-going refutation of them is given by Hume in his Essay on Suicide. This did not appeal until after his death, when it was immediately suppressed, owing to the scandalous bigotry and outrageous ecclesiastical tyranny that prevailed in England; and hence only a very few copies of it were sold under cover of secrecy and at a high price. This and another treatise by that great man have come to us from Basle, and we may be thankful for the reprint.9 It is a great disgrace to the English nation that a purely philosophical treatise, which, proceeding from one of the first thinkers and writers in England, aimed at refuting the current arguments against suicide by the light of cold reason, should be forced to sneak about in that country, as though it were some rascally production, until at last it found refuge on the Continent. At the same time it shows what a good conscience the Church has in such matters.

8 See my treatise on the Foundation of Morals, § 5.]

9Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, by the late David Hume, Basle, 1799, sold by James Decker.]

In my chief work I have explained the only valid reason existing against suicide on the score of mortality. It is this: that suicide thwarts the attainment of the highest moral aim by the fact that, for a real release from this world of misery, it substitutes one that is merely apparent. But from a mistake to a crime is a far cry; and it is as a crime that the clergy of Christendom wish us to regard suicide.

The inmost kernel of Christianity is the truth that suffering — the Cross — is the real end and object of life. Hence Christianity condemns suicide as thwarting this end; whilst the ancient world, taking a lower point of view, held it in approval, nay, in honor.10 But if that is to be accounted a valid reason against suicide, it involves the recognition of asceticism; that is to say, it is valid only from a much higher ethical standpoint than has ever been adopted by moral philosophers in Europe. If we abandon that high standpoint, there is no tenable reason left, on the score of morality, for condemning suicide. The extraordinary energy and zeal with which the clergy of monotheistic religions attack suicide is not supported either by any passages in the Bible or by any considerations of weight; so that it looks as though they must have some secret reason for their contention. May it not be this — that the voluntary surrender of life is a bad compliment for him who said that all things were very good? If this is so, it offers another instance of the crass optimism of these religions — denouncing suicide to escape being denounced by it.

10Translator’s Note. — Schopenhauer refers to Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. i., § 69, where the reader may find the same argument stated at somewhat greater length. According to Schopenhauer, moral freedom — the highest ethical aim — is to be obtained only by a denial of the will to live. Far from being a denial, suicide is an emphatic assertion of this will. For it is in fleeing from the pleasures, not from the sufferings of life, that this denial consists. When a man destroys his existence as an individual, he is not by any means destroying his will to live. On the contrary, he would like to live if he could do so with satisfaction to himself; if he could assert his will against the power of circumstance; but circumstance is too strong for him.]

It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world. Perhaps there is no man alive who would not have already put an end to his life, if this end had been of a purely negative character, a sudden stoppage of existence. There is something positive about it; it is the destruction of the body; and a man shrinks from that, because his body is the manifestation of the will to live.

However, the struggle with that sentinel is, as a rule, not so hard as it may seem from a long way off, mainly in consequence of the antagonism between the ills of the body and the ills of the mind. If we are in great bodily pain, or the pain lasts a long time, we become indifferent to other troubles; all we think about is to get well. In the same way great mental suffering makes us insensible to bodily pain; we despise it; nay, if it should outweigh the other, it distracts our thoughts, and we welcome it as a pause in mental suffering. It is this feeling that makes suicide easy; for the bodily pain that accompanies it loses all significance in the eyes of one who is tortured by an excess of mental suffering. This is especially evident in the case of those who are driven to suicide by some purely morbid and exaggerated ill-humor. No special effort to overcome their feelings is necessary, nor do such people require to be worked up in order to take the step; but as soon as the keeper into whose charge they are given leaves them for a couple of minutes, they quickly bring their life to an end.

When, in some dreadful and ghastly dream, we reach the moment of greatest horror, it awakes us; thereby banishing all the hideous shapes that were born of the night. And life is a dream: when the moment of greatest horror compels us to break it off, the same thing happens.

Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment — a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to an answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things? It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.

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