Suicide: An Atheist Perspective
(Lecture Begins Below)
Introduction- Does the secular community need to address suicide and discourage it?
Secular thinking has often focused on the individual right to take one’s life, as opposed to the religious ban on suicide-
Definition of suicide and origin of the word-
Suicide’s first appearance as a word in either 1642 or 1651-
Classical Greece and its viewpoint on suicide- complex mix of attitudes that can be confusing-
Heroic suicides of the philosophers and others-
Athens, Thebes and other Greek city states had strict laws prohibiting suicide-
Prevalent viewpoints on suicide in the ancient world-
Pythagorean, Orphic and Platonic; Aristotle’s civic argument; Stoic School (Greek, but mainly Roman); Epicurean School-
Plato’s position against suicide- cowardice and an offense against the state-
Stoic belief that suicide was permissible under certain conditions- a discussion of Stoic thoughts on suicide-
How Roman law treated suicide-
Christianity’s borrowing of pagan philosophy on death and its differences with it-
St. Augustine (345- 430 CE) wrote significant opinions against suicide-
An extended discussion of the early Christian desire for martyrdom and its rash of suicidal believers – their reasons-
Some early Church fathers’ positions that Jesus’ death was a suicide-
Augustine prohibited suicide-
Church rulings and councils from 533 CE on prohibited suicide and made it a moral sin and a serious crime- an extended discussion of the shift against suicide-
Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274 CE)- his greatest work, Summa Theologica, written from 1265-74, contains his theological discussion against suicide-
An extended discussion of the transition as the Church condemned suicide, seen as desirable in its first centuries-
The Church’s obsession with turning suicide into a grievous sin-
An extended discussion and description of the treatment of suicides’ bodies after their death in various nations during the Middle Ages and beyond-
The Renaissance- more sympathetic view of suicide but no acceptance of the act- Many Renaissance painters depicted Lucretia, the Roman woman who committed suicide for honor’s sake-
Richard Burton’s 1622 Anatomy of Melancholy attempted a scientific categorization of types of depression- discussed religious melancholy- condemned religious fervor about sin and the afterlife-
The Protestant Reformation from the turn of the 16th Century loosened some of the prohibitions against suicide- an extended discussion about the rash of suicides in the 17th Century German territories- suicides often killed someone so they could be forgiven and executed immediately after confession and absolution- their belief they would gain paradise by making such a “good death”-
An extended discussion of the Enlightenment’s treatment of suicide- more liberal and scientific- Enlightenment thinkers and their positions on suicide- Pierre Bayle, Baron d’Holbach, Montesquieu, Voltaire, d’Alembert, etc.
David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – the two important philosophers and their opinions concerning suicide-
France and England’s gradual shift to less draconian laws against suicide by the 1790’s-
Secularity moved discussion of suicide away from concept of god and sin to discussion of the pros and cons of suicide-
Rise of medicine, science, political and economic changes such as the beginning of capitalism brought about more tolerant laws and discussion of suicide-
Important psychologists and social scientists wrote on suicide in the late 1800’s-
Sigmund Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” in 1917 – an extended discussion of the work
An extended discussion of Durkheim’s, Suicide in 1897 and his division of suicides into types- Egoistic, Altruistic, Anomic and Fatalistic- social science -
The failure of the secular community to address suicide, leaving the problem to psychology and religion-
Statistics on suicide in the present day and a discussion of suicide clusters- the negative influence of suicide on people who are affected by the act-
Discussion of Diderot’s (1713-1784) reasons against suicide- its loss to the community and to one’s future self-
The story of Josephus, 1st Century soldier and historian, and his decision not to commit suicide-
Wittgenstein, ( 1889-1851), the great philosopher- his condemnation of suicide-
Conclusion- why atheists should not commit suicide but think of their community, their loved ones and their future self- Stay!
Suicide: An Atheist Perspective
The citation of the books and articles mentioned in the lecture may be found at the end of “An Atheist Perspective on Suicide” at AtheistScholar.org, in the Bibliography.
This lecture is gratefully indebted to the work of A. Alvarez, Zilla Gabrielle Kahn, and Jennifer Michael Hecht. References to their work may be found in the Bibliography.
My lecture topic is on the issue of suicide, with specific reference to the question of whether the secular community should do more to discourage suicide. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s 2014 volume, Stay, argues that the atheist/agnostic community has neglected the issue in past years, and continues to do so, instead focusing on the right to commit suicide. It is easy to understand why the secular community would insist on the right of a person to take their own life. It is a reaction to the various religions’ positions that suicide is a sin, a grievous offense against their god or gods, and so on. Such religious notions have made their way into many countries’ legal structures. It is against the law to take one’s own life or attempt to do so in many nations.
The lecture will discuss the meaning and origin of the word, “suicide,” its role in the ancient world, and the eventual stand of the Christian church against it. I shall be glancing at the approaches taken by some psychological and sociological schools on the issue of suicide, as well as what some contemporary authors and philosophers have written about it.
I will close with several important arguments made by philosophers and thinkers to discourage those who might be reflecting on the question of taking their own life.
Suicide is generally defined as the taking of one’s own life. Some definitions also state that it is the intentional act of causing one’s own death. The word comes from the Latin, suicidium, which came from sui caedere, to kill oneself. The word, suicide, appeared relatively late, and at first its use was rare. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first usage of the word, suicide, in 1651. However, A. Alvarez states that he found it a little earlier in Sir Thomas Brown’s Religio Medici, which was written in 1635, but not published until 1642. But suicide did not appear in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary in 1775. The 1775 edition used such phrases such as “self-murder,” “self-destruction,” “self-killer,” “self-homicide,” “self-slaughter,” and so on. It has been noted that all such expressions reflected association with murder.
It is easy to gain a false impression about the ancient Greek view of suicide from some of the philosophical writings. Classical Greece is replete with examples of famous men and philosophers taking their own lives for high-minded reasons. One of the most famous tales is the refusal of the 5th Century philosopher, Socrates, to escape from prison and avoid his death sentence. An Athenian jury had found him guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and impiety, failure to believe in the gods of the state. In 399 BCE, he was ordered to drink hemlock, a deadly poison. The philosopher, Plato, (428-397 BCE), described Socrates’ death in his 360 BCE Phaedo.
The famous death scene, immortalized by Socrates’ pupil, is moving and heroic. The elderly Socrates asks his grieving followers to look after the family he is leaving and discusses philosophic issues to the end. (Earlier primitive societies were afraid of murdered ghosts returning to exact revenge from their killers.
Greek society might have retained a memory of that superstition. So instead of killing guilty persons by execution, some governments ordered them to commit suicide.)
There were other examples of high-minded self-murder in ancient Greece. There is the tale of the law-giver, Lycurgus of Sparta, who formulated his state’s legal code. He went to Delphi to receive the approval of the oracle there for his new laws. Before leaving, he persuaded the Spartan people to swear an oath that they would keep his laws until his return. Once he had obtained the oracle’s approval, he sent word to Sparta that the code was accepted. Then he starved himself to death without returning. Therefore, the story went, the Spartan nation had to keep its oath to obey his laws forever.
I am going to discuss the Greek acceptance of suicide under certain circumstances, but I would like to first emphasize that some of the Greek city-states had laws against the act. The ordinary ancient Greek had a horror of killing one’s own kin, which linked self-murder to that taboo. Even in relatively sophisticated Athens, a suicide’s body had the hand which did the deed cut off and buried separately from the corpse. Additionally, the suicide’s body was buried outside the city limits. Thebes and other states had legal prohibitions against suicide as well.
According to Zilla Cahn, “There were four basic attitudes toward suicide in the ancient world.” (1) There was the religious argument of the Orphic/Pythagorean and Platonic schools, which consisted of the general belief that we are god’s creatures and may not desert our post without permission; (2) the civic argument of Aristotle (385-322 BCE); (3) the Stoic argument for the heroic endurance of suffering, with suicide an alternative; (4) the quietist argument of the Epicureans.
Plato, influenced by the Orphic and Pythagorean schools, believed that life was an expiation for crimes committed in past lives; to leave this life by suicide would only increase our guilt by not allowing the gods to determine our length of time on earth. Plato’s thought was very influential to Christian theologians and one can detect traces of his concepts in later Christian ideas. By the time he wrote his 360 BCE Laws, Plato allowed suicide for two reasons: (1) if the state required it and (2) if life became intolerable due to such circumstances as sorrow, bad fortune, shame or poverty. A thought-out suicide without such reasons was still condemned. Plato stated that the body should receive an isolated burial outside the city, in barren and nameless border areas, with no headstone or name to identify the body. If the suicide involved the State, all the city-magistrates should stone the corpse’s head and “cast it (the body) out by legal sentence without sepulcher.”
The philosopher, Aristotle, (385-322 BCE), believed the soul died with the body and in his 350 BCE, Ethics, stated that death was the most terrible of all things. He maintained that suicide was not only an act of cowardice, even in the case of great pain, but an offense against the State, similar to a soldier’s desertion of his post.
Epicurus, (341-270 BCE), the founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy, condemned suicide as well. However, the 1st Century BCE Epicurean poet/philosopher, Lucretius, adopted the Stoic precept that suicide was acceptable if committed for the correct reasons. One may discern that tolerant Greek attitudes toward suicide were in contradiction with laws condemning the practice. Many Greco-Roman physicians assisted in suicide, but the minority who took the late 5th Century BCE, Hippocratic Oath, followed its injunctions against suicide or aiding or advising suicide.
The Stoic philosophers of the Roman Empire considered suicide justified under certain circumstances. Roman law took the same stance, and the State only ruled against self-murder in the cases where its own interest was threatened. Slaves were capital investments and were not permitted to commit suicide. Soldiers who committed suicide were seen as carrying out acts very akin to desertion, and a condemned criminal was believed to be cheating the State of his correct punishment. In the event the condemned person killed himself, he would be declared without legal heirs, and his property confiscated by the government. In many cases, the emperor would issue a command to citizens who had displeased him to take their own lives. In this manner, the condemned avoided trial and property confiscation.
The Stoics, along with many other Romans, believed in dying well. Suicide was to be undertaken in a dignified manner, as a result of humiliation or lost honor. Seneca’s (4-65 CE) Epistle 9 stated: “But if I know I must suffer without hope of relief, I will depart, not through fear of pain itself, but because it prevents all for which I would live.” The philosopher practiced what he preached.
When the Emperor Nero ordered Seneca, his former teacher and advisor, to commit suicide, he did so without hesitation. The Roman Emperor, Justinian’s (482-465 CE) Digest, an important legal code, stated that the suicide of a private person was not punishable if it was caused by “… impatience of pain or sickness, or by another cause, or by weariness of life… lunacy or fear of dishonor.”
Gatch states that “…the development of early Christian thought was, to a great extent, an accommodation to the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul.” But there were vast differences, both early and late, in the positions adopted by the Christian Church and its thinkers. Ancient pagan thought most often expressed the idea that death was an evil and not a punishment. But Christian theologians believed that death was a punishment, brought about by the sin of Adam. It was not considered the end of suffering, but the beginning of endless and excruciating pain in the afterlife. Cahn states that” “…the idea of resurrection on the Last Day Judgment was, despite the assurance that death was better than life, for most not a comfort, but a source of great horror of death which would be endured for centuries.”
St. Augustine (345-430 CE) initiated the complex ideas which grew into the official Church doctrine on suicide. Augustine’s writings and injunctions against suicide become clearer to fathom when the suicidal lust of many early Christians is understood. A. Alvarez states: “Early Christian thinking was an inducement to suicide.” Since life on earth was a preparation for the hereafter, a quick exit to a better world became very desirable. An early death might assure them of a spot in the better world beyond, especially as they could avoid the sinful temptations of this world.”
The more the Church preached of the corruption of this world and the desirability of the next, the more such teachings incited a desire for martyrdom. The story of Jesus’ martyrdom and suffering provided them with an added incentive.
When the Church decided to place a ban on suicide in later centuries, it had a great difficulty rationalizing the prohibition. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament directly forbids the act. There are four suicides in the Old Testament, none of which earns adverse reportage- Samson, Saul, Abimelech and Ahitophel. The early Christians who were read the New Testament believed that Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was his most damning act. But to later Christians, Judas’ self-murder was his most egregious crime.
Suicide was a neutral subject during the early years of Christianity. The Church Fathers, Tertullian, (160- 220 CE) and Origen (died in 254 CE), wrote about Jesus’ death as a kind of suicide. They found it necessary to regard his crucifixion in that light, as they were faced with the question of how god could be at the mercy of the government and its common officials. Much later, John Donne, the 16th Century English poet and divine, stated that: “Our Blessed Savior “... chose that way for our Redemption to sacrifice his life and profuse his blood.”
Scrutinizing the tales of martyrdom in the early years of the Church sheds light on the issue of Christian suicide. It is necessary to keep in mind that current research has discovered that Church claims of Christian martyrdom and persecution have been greatly exaggerated. (See “The Myth of Persecution” at AtheistScholar.org.)
Nevertheless, there was persecution, but it was sometimes brought on by Christians themselves who lusted after martyrdom. Some Roman magistrates displayed a tendency toward leniency, which some intransigent Christians met with obdurate provocation. They were hacked by swords, thrown over cliffs, fed to wild animals in the arena and so on.
One does not know if the following tale is true or apocryphal, but it surely is symbolic of those times. A Roman pro-consul, stationed in Africa, was surrounded by a crowd of Christians demanding to be put to death. Furious and bored, he shouted at them: “Go hang and drown yourselves and ease the magistrate.” Alvarez states: “Martyrdom was a Christian creation as much as a Christian persecution.” The African story, however, may well be true, because the worst excesses of Christians rushing to martyrdom took place among a North African schismatic sect, the Donatists. Their ascetic practices caused the Church to declare them heretics. By the 4th Century, Donatist self-destruction had become a great problem. Their desire for martyrdom was serious incentive for Augustine’s efforts to formulate comprehensive arguments against suicide.
Here is an excerpt of what Gibbon had to say about the Donatists in his late 1850’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “They sometimes forced their way into the courts of justice and compelled the affrighted judge to give order for their execution. They frequently stopped travelers on the public highways and obliged them to inflict the stroke of martyrdom by the promise of a reward if they consented, and by the threat of death if they refused to grant so very singular a favor.”
Gibbon went on to state that some Donatists simply gathered friends and family together for a final farewell, and then jumped off some high place to their deaths. Travelers passing by were shown precipices that had acquired fame by the amount of religious suicides which had taken place from them.
Such excesses in the 4th and 5th Centuries brought home to Augustine (354-430 CE) the logical consequences of Christian teaching. Many Christians believed that baptism cleansed them of all sins, so they postponed the rite until on their deathbeds. But a few others received baptism, and then sought out immediate martyrdom to enter Paradise while their souls were pristine.
To remedy such excess, Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, undertook the onerous task of prohibiting suicide and rationalizing the prohibition. He had to resort to a rather strained interpretation of the 6th Commandment: “Thou shall not kill,” as one argument. He also maintained that suicide closes the possibility of repentance. In Books I and XIII of his volume, The City of God, written in the early 5th Century, he presents four basic arguments against suicide: (1) no private individual may kill a guilty person, even himself; (2) the person who kills himself still kills nothing less than a man; (3) the truly noble soul will bear all suffering (a Stoic ideal); (4) suicide is a greater sin than anyone could avoid by its commission.
Augustine made some concessions to genuine Christian martyrs. His points are basically the position of the Catholic Church today. To concoct his argument, Augustine took up Plato’s Pythagorean concepts. He argued that life was a gift from god and human suffering was divinely ordained.
He concluded, therefore, that we do not have the right to cut those sufferings short, but to bear them patiently.
Between Augustine’s substantial reputation and the excesses of the martyrs, opinion had begun to be swayed against suicide. Soon the Church began to set doctrine on a course against self-murder. The 533 Council of Orleans denied funeral rites to any person who killed themselves while accused of a crime. Ordinary criminals were permitted a Christian burial, so the Church was making a statement that suicide was an extremely serious crime. In the 562 Council of Braga, the Church set canon law about self –destruction without any exceptions. Funeral rites were denied to all suicides, regardless of reasons, social class or methods used.
The 693 Council of Toledo ordained that all suicides be excommunicated, including attempted suicides. What had been a respectable alternative for Roman citizens and the key to Paradise for early Christians, had been transformed into a deadly, perhaps the deadliest, mortal sin of all. Later theologians argued that Judas Iscariot’s suicide did not in some manner atone for the betrayal of Christ, but that Judas had damned himself with the egregious act of self-murder. By the 11th Century, St. Bruno stated that suicides were “martyrs for Satan.”
Two centuries later, Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), arguably the greatest Catholic theologian, crystallized dogma in his great work, The Summa Theologica (written 1265-1274) in which he stated that suicide was a mortal sin against justice and charity. He also said it was a sin against god. Following Aristotle’s position, Aquinas explained that the suicide’s sin against justice was the sin against the community. Augustine restated the old Platonic argument when he called suicide a sin against god.
Thomas’ argument that suicide was a sin against charity was the most interesting one. By charity he meant the instinctive charity one owes to himself- the instinct of self-preservation that even the lower animals possess. To violate the instinct of self-preservation was a moral sin because it was against nature.
Alvarez points out that suicide, thinly disguised as martyrdom, was one of the cornerstones on which the Christian Church was built. He maintains that the power the act exerted on the Christian imagination became a problem which gave rise to the absoluteness with which suicide was subsequently condemned, as well as to the horrific vengeance enacted on the suicides’ corpses. The 12th and 13th Century Albigensians were believed to have doubled the sins their heresies had earned because they also sought out martyrdom. The Church felt they deserved the savagery with which they were butchered. The Church had thoroughly altered the concept of suicide as an act which inspired the deepest moral revulsion.
The Church seemed obsessed with making the act of suicide the worse sin a human could commit- one that cut him/her off from the Christian community even in death. Enormities against the corpses of suicides were accepted and even applauded. In 1601, a lawyer reported that suicides’ bodies were dragged by horses to places where they were hung on a gibbet, and no one except the magistrate could order them removed. That was the same fate suffered by criminals. Blackstone, the great 18th Century legal authority, said that the corpse of an English suicide was customarily buried at the crossroads, with a stake through its heart. Such a burial was similar to the treatment of the so-called vampires and seems to hearken back to the early fear of a murdered ghost’s return.
In France, suicides’ corpses were hanged by the feet, dragged through the streets, burned, or thrown on the garbage bed. At Metz, Germany, suicides’ bodies were put in a barrel and floated down the Moselle River. In France, noble suicides’ corpses were degraded, their names defamed and their castles destroyed. In England, suicides’ properties reverted to the crown. The last suicide’s corpse to be buried at the crossroads in England was as late as 1823. However, suicides’ bodies which were unclaimed continued to be taken to schools of anatomy for dissection.
The Renaissance saw great innovations and advances in art. It was also an age that brought a revival of the classical authors of Greece and Rome, many of whom who had argued for suicide under certain conditions. The founding of the Roman Republic had supposedly been inspired by the suicide of Lucretia, which captured the imagination of many Renaissance artists. The story was a favorite subject of painters such as Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Durer, Cranach and others.
As the tale was told, Lucretia had been subjected to unwilling sex with the last Tarquin king of the Etruscans in the 6th Century BCE. She was famous for her virtue, but Tarquinius told her if she did not submit to him he would rape and kill her. Then he would kill a male slave and say that he had found the slave and Lucretia having sex. Lucretia told her husband and kinsmen what the king had done to her, then took a dagger and killed herself because she had been dishonored. Her people were enraged by Tarquinius’ tyranny and they went to war, killing him and founding the Roman Republic.
Shakespeare (1564- 1616) wrote about suicide as well. Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, describes the dialogue of Hamlet with himself, arguing the pros and cons of suicide. Shakespeare also wrote of other characters’ suicides, including the famous one of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. The great Montaigne (1533-1592), the inventor of the essay, questioned suicide closely, even suggesting that the act was sometimes motivated by vanity and drama.
In 1610, the cleric and poet, John Donne, wrote a posthumously published defense of suicide, Biathanatos, from a religious point of view. He did not believe the act should be punished by cruel religious laws or by government decrees. He admitted he had often considered suicide, but his most interesting statement was that he was not deterred by any belief it was a sinful act. He saw Jesus as a suicide for the good of humanity, and therefore did not regard suicide as an anti-religious action.
Then in 1622, the rehabilitation of the concept of suicide advanced exponentially. Richard Burton published his volume, Anatomy of Melancholy. Authentic scientific methods for his “research” were not available to him at that period in history, but his work was the first attempt to explore of the topic of melancholy, or depression, in a scientific manner. He wrote about depression because he himself suffered from it. He even classified melancholia into types. Even though expectedly dated and inaccurate, Burton’s book is still important. It had moved the discussion of causes of depression away from religious explanations.
Religion still claimed that the devil was tempting people to kill themselves. Burton devoted a long portion of his work to religious melancholia. He blamed some types of melancholy on the overly zealous preaching of too-passionate preachers, both Catholic and Protestant. He believed that some people were driven to melancholy despair because they assumed they were already damned and a few went on to commit suicide out of hopelessness. He advised people prone to such turns of mind to stay away from both religious tracts and sermons that would intensify those fears.
Indeed, Burton was correct. The Protestant Reformation had helped to loosen the firm position of the Catholic Church against suicide. That was because of the Protestant emphasis on the individual religious experience rather than dependence on Church doctrine alone. But religious terrors and fears appear to have become exacerbated by the dread of damnation during that era. Hecht cites Vera Lind’s essay, “The Suicide Mind and Body,” as well as statistics from the turn of the 16th Century, which bear out the accuracy of this observation. Calvinist leaders recognized the suicide crisis and tried to deal with it by developing conversion and redemption cures. Burton believed such “cures” only worsened the weight of conscience the sufferers bore.
Lind cites the astonishing fact that some 18th Century believers from the German territories murdered people in order to die a “good death.” Those murderers thought that Paradise would be denied them if they committed suicide. There is a case from 1752 when a servant killed a boy simply because he, himself, wanted to die but to die properly. People like the servant believed that to be forgiven and comforted by a priest just before execution would assure they would be allowed into Paradise. The situation became so out of control, the authorities passed a law to stop it in 1767. They refused the death penalty to anyone who killed someone in order to obtain their own death. Instead, the penalty for such a crime was life imprisonment. There were clusters of what some scholars call “indirect suicide” during that era.
The “suicide by authorities” practice declined in the later 18th Century, at least partially due to being exposed to ideas from the secular Enlightenment writers. People began to lose their fear of the devil to some extent. They also became less afraid of god and hellfire. Suicide was written about in new ways, in which its pros and cons were examined in a complex and intellectual manner. The Church writers might thunder their condemnation of suicide, but people were becoming exposed to scientific ideas. Suicide was approached from the point of view that mental illness and/or financial difficulties were some of its causes rather than Satan.
There was a more permissive attitude when the Enlightenment philosophers approached the question of suicide. In 18th Century France, the Enlightenment philosophers began to question presumed verities, including the condemnation of suicide. (Please see “An Atheist Perspective on the Enlightenment at AtheistScholar.org for an extended discussion of the Enlightenment.) Although the progressive and intellectual approach to self-destruction was a step ahead in human progress, like many improvements in human culture, it had unintended consequences.
Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) was one of the first to cry out for tolerance for suicides. The great philosopher, Montesquieu (1689- 1755), was influenced by Bayle’s reasoned insistence on toleration. Montesquieu referred to natural law theory and attempted to reconcile it with the concept of circumstantial ethics. Kahn states that he came to believe “… that in extreme circumstances, with no way out, when one’s very humanity is at risk, suicide becomes an honored means of preserving the self.”
Montesquieu concluded that the morality of an action derives from the complicated mix of natural human proclivities as they combine with the circumstances unique to each individual’s time and place. The Church viewed him as a threat because he refused to accept the Thomistic argument. Aquinas had argued that suicide was always unnatural and that patience and resignation to suffering were prescriptive for humans. Montesquieu denied the value of life or existence, at any price, under any conditions.
Montesquieu spoke of the harshness of the suicide laws put in place with Louis XIV’s oppressive legal code of 1670. He criticized the amount of suicides “… put to death for a second time… their bodies… dragged in disgrace through the streets and branded, to denote infamy, and their goods confiscated.” The draconian suicide laws would not be changed until the French Revolution that took place from 1787 to 1799, but it was thinkers such as the French philosophers who began the project. They questioned the penalties against suicide just as they had begun to question so many unjust and ignorant laws and customs.
Voltaire (1694- 1778), the philosopher best known for the 1759 satirical work, Candide, did not consider suicide a crime. He wrote against the confiscation of a suicide’s property. His pen seethed with indignation at that unjust law. He wrote: “…children of one who puts an end to his own life are condemned to perish with hunger, equally with those of an assassin. Thus, in every case, a whole family is punished for the crime on an individual.”
Many of the Enlightenment philosophers, especially the French, gave their assent to suicide because of their commitment to personal freedom. But they qualified their approval or consent to suicide, most of them stating that suicide should be discouraged. Many of them believed the act was harmful to society. The majority were ill at ease about giving their complete assent to self-destruction and modified it in many ways. D’Alembert (1717-1783) stressed the harm that would come to a suicide’s survivors, emphasizing that: “… a man’s life belongs to other men almost as much as to himself.”
It took a long time for France to liberalize its draconian laws against suicide, despite a century of effort on the part of reformers. The legal system was beginning to examine the idea of the consequences of an action as a determinant of guilt. Many of the consequences of suicide appeared to be caused by the laws against it. On Jan. 1, 1790, the French National Assembly repealed all the laws against a suicide’s body and property. On Jan. 21, 1790, the legal system decided not to punish an offender beyond his/her death and not to reveal the manner of death in the official records.
Before moving on from the Enlightenment, I would like to discuss the opinions about suicide held by that era’s two most formidable intellects, one in England and the other in Germany. The great skeptical philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), argued for man’s right to commit suicide, while Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued against it.
In his “On Suicide” (1755), Hume claimed that if by committing suicide one was acting against god’s will, most of us acted against god’s will anyway.
He argued that when one tries to turn away a stone from falling on his head, he is acting against Providence which has decreed that his life should not be lengthened any longer. He argued very eloquently against the religious prohibitions against suicide, but did not provide compelling secular reasons why humans should refrain from self-destruction.
Kant’s 1781 Critique of Pure Reason is cited as one of the greatest philosophical works of the ages. But it was in his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals that he fully took up the issue of suicide, providing a series of good reasons to reject the act. He maintained that self-destruction was an act of murder and a violation of the duty we owe other people, such as children, parents, spouses and fellow citizens. Kant believed that suicide was against nature and that someone with the strength of mind to kill oneself was strong enough to stay alive. He stated that we each have a duty to ourselves and that duty is to preserve our own life.
Secular philosophy had definitively moved the discussion of suicide away from the religious prohibition. The religious arguments about people’s duty to god and the necessity of resisting the devil’s temptation to end one’s life were replaced with intelligent and thoughtful speculation on the wisdom of suicide. There was a new emphasis on the individual. There were fresh ideas springing from rise of social science and hard science. There were rapid social and economic changes. Hecht speculates that the rise of capitalism, with its emphasis on private property, made it more difficult to confiscate suicides’ estates. As punishment declined, she argues, so did the temptation to see suicide as a crime.
I should now like to turn to what befell the topic of suicide when it became the province of social science and psychology. Some important psychologists wrote about the pathology of, and reasons for, suicide. Suicide is too complex a topic to make generalizations about, and the earliest researchers came to many inaccurate conclusions about its causes. Current investigations are more trustworthy, but Freud and Durkheim are too important to pass over. Their theories and opinions are necessarily dated by now, but their research is still referred to in current discussions of suicide.
Not enough attention has been paid to the theories of the early psychologists, Stekel and Adler, but it is now known that Freud’s views on suicide, especially as articulated in his 1917 “Mourning and Melancholia,” were influenced by both men. It was apparently Stekel (1868- 1940) who first stated: “No one kills himself who has never wanted to kill another, or at least wished the death of another.” He believed that when children are punished, they are filled with anger and wishes of revenge on the perpetrator. They then become guilty for their hostility and their wish that someone, a parent or teacher, would die. As a result, the child begins to feel it should die, both as a punishment and to punish the parent or teacher, who will be filled with grief at the loss.
In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud (1836- 1959), made some important distinctions between mourning and melancholy. Mourning is a normal grief response to the loss of a loved one, fatherland, liberty and so on. But melancholia is a grief where the mourner loses self-esteem, withdraws from the world, and loses the capacity to love. The loss of self-esteem is the most important difference between melancholy and ordinary mourning.
Freud believed that such self-reproaches are really “…reproaches against a loved object which has been shifted onto the patient’s own ego.” The melancholic does not withdraw his ego from the lost object which he feels has rejected him and find another object. Instead, the melancholic’s ego becomes identified with the rejecting object and transforms the lost object into a loss to the damaged ego. In this manner, the relationship does not need to be given up.
Freud pointed out the narcissism which forms part of melancholy. The melancholic’s suffering gratifies his sadistic feelings and hate. He can torment the lost love object with his illness without expressing his outright hostility to it. Freud believed that was why melancholy was so dangerous and so apt to lead to suicide. It is interesting to see that Freud, usually so sure of himself and somewhat arrogant about his own opinions, was reluctant to claim complete understanding of melancholy. At the conclusion of his discussion, he admitted that he was still uncertain about the nature of melancholia. He stated: “… it will be well to call a halt and postpone further investigation into mania until we have gained some insight into economic conditions and etcetera.” Mania, of course, was often the flip-side of depression.
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a social scientist who is often called the “father of Social Science.” He believed that most individuals were motivated by social forces and conditions. He was convinced, for instance, that religion was social glue that brought people together in societies. (Please see “Atheist Sociology” at AtheistScholar.org for an extended discussion of the “social glue” theory of religion.)
Durkheim argued that society is an entity greater than its individual parts, even transcending them to become something new, and that new entity was more important than the individuals comprising it.
Durkheim’s famous 1897 study, Suicide, is still discussed in most scholarly dissertations about self-destruction. His theories are considered out-of-date, but his efforts to categorize and discuss suicide scientifically are too important to be ignored. Writers and scientists in the present day are familiar with the issues discussed in his work. It was important to Durkheim to have sociology recognized as a scientific pursuit like other areas of study in his time. He chose the topic of suicide as worth researching for two reasons. First, suicide was still an unsolved behavior. Secondly, he was anxious to prove that suicide was the result of societal factors that worked on the depressed person. He rejected any interpretation that it was the result of interior motivations. His study endeavored to demonstrate that suicide had its roots in large, impersonal social forces.
To that end, Durkheim attempted to categorize suicide into types, and identified four of them. They are: (1) egoistic suicide which springs from too much individuation. The person lacks connection and identification with his society. He is overtaken by feelings of loneliness, meaninglessness, and depression. (2) Altruistic suicide is the opposite of the egoistic type. In this category of suicide, the person has failed to individuate from society properly. She becomes enmeshed with the group ideals and their importance. The significance of the group makes exigent the act of sacrificing one’s life for it. (3) There is anomic suicide. The individual who commits this type of suicide is sometimes overwhelmed by social and economic upheaval and change. Durkheim said such a person would be morally confused, lacking in direction and filled with uncertainty. He ended with (4), fatalistic suicide. Such a person has had his desires thwarted permanently or chronically. Then the individual becomes hopeless and believes he or she is unable to alter the situation. The desolation and despair become permanent.
Present day thinking about self-destruction leans on biological and familial reasons for suicide. Durkheim’s work is important because he emphasized the weight of social influence on suicides. However he realized that his fourth category had not been properly developed. It is certain that when people are continually thwarted and become depressed, they are at risk for committing suicide. Durkheim’s last category is important because it points out that individual forces are at work on the suicidal person. Personal motivation is a significant factor in suicide, according to experts in the present day.
There is irony upon irony concerning Durkheim’s analysis of suicide. His intent was to take the field of sociology to a leading intellectual position, with psychology rendered largely irrelevant. But he was mistaken. The model he proposed, that societal factors were the main cause of suicide, was basically incorrect. Psychology became the leading school that was turned to when attempts were begun to study suicide.
Today, the emphasis has shifted somewhat, with interior psychological motives for suicide in a downgraded position. Experts are looking for genetic and other biological causes that drive people to depression and self-destruction.
There is increasing reliance on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Such medications are not always effective and may cause harm to some people. While Durkheim and Freud may have been too simplistic in assigning definitive causes for suicide, it is important to keep in mind that prolonged grief and/or fatalism are often important triggers for some suicides.
The question is still too complex to simply prescribe medication and not explore causation more thoroughly. We are more advanced today than when Freud and Durkheim studied and wrote about suicide, but we have not succeeded in stemming the tide of self-destruction. Nevertheless, we can see that the issue of suicide has moved from religious condemnation to scientific scrutiny since the era of the Enlightenment.
However, there are still far too many scholars and thinkers who believe that it is primarily religious faith that deters suicide. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s 2013 volume, Stay, discusses the secular community’s failure to address the issue of suicide adequately. She believes that we are not doing enough to speak against it, leaving the problem to science and religion. I agree. We need to offer secular arguments against taking one’s own life to our members.
There are many cogent arguments that are worthy to be advanced as deterrents against suicide. I will close the lecture with two of the most important.
But first, I would like to quote some of the statistics on suicide from Hecht’s volume, as her sources are excellent and well-researched.
Many of those statistics are a cautionary message for people contemplating suicide, because as the philosophers knew and wrote about through the centuries, it is not only himself who is harmed when one decides to end their life. The act of self-destruction has an effect that may be compared to throwing a small pebble into a still body of water and watching the spread of the concentric circles grow and extend far beyond the place where the pebble sank. Suicide seldom ends with the original death.
Here is Hecht on the 1854 statement from the American medical statistician, William Farr. Farr found that imitation was often a “source of suicide.” He discovered that the act and its particular details had a potent imaginative effect on those who learned of it. In moments of distress, such people were tempted to replicate the act of self-destruction. The editor of the 19th Century “American Journal of Insanity,” expanded on the idea, arguing that a potential suicide draws on an earlier one for his/her own act of self-destruction.
Suicide clusters have existed since classical antiquity. Plutarch wrote his famous history in the 1st Century BCE. He reported that several centuries earlier, young women in Miletus, Greece had begun killing themselves at an alarming rate. There are hard to believe, but true reports of clusters of suicides committed by people who knew a previous suicide, or heard about it, read about it and so on. Modern research bears out the truth that when a person takes their own life, they provide incentive to someone else to take theirs.
One of the most significant reports is from sociological studies of the effect of parent suicides on young children and young people.
Hecht cites a 2010 study from John Hopkins University in the May issue of the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. This investigation showed that children 18 years or younger who had a parent who committed suicide were 3 times more likely to commit suicide than the same age group with no parents having committed suicide.
An even larger study conducted by United States and Swedish investigators followed the entire Swedish population for thirty years. The team examined suicides, psychiatric hospitalizations, and violent crime convictions in more than 500,000 Swedish children, teens and adults under the age of 25 who had lost a parent to suicide, accident, or disease compared to nearly four million children, teens, and young adults with living parents. A suicide by a parent while a child was under 18 tripled the likelihood the child would commit suicide. But children under 13 who lost a parent to illness had no increased risk for suicide as compared to children with living parents. Children who lost parents to suicide were nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression.
Experts point out that there are complicating factors in such cases, such as the simple fact of anguish caused by a parent leaving or the mental anguish caused by a mentally ill parent or a genetic factor shared by some family members. But the sheer numbers are extremely telling. A parent dying or leaving does not triple children’s suicide rate; that only happens with children of suicidal parents.
The writer, Loren Coleman, has written a volume titled Suicide Clusters. He reports on suicide clusters in the same professions.
A cluster of “town fathers” had a wave of suicides of professional men in one town in the 1970’s. In 1986 Boston, there was a cluster of police suicides, as well as in New York at the same time period. There have been clusters of suicides by farmers and by gay men in the 1970’s and 1980’s, especially those diagnosed with AIDS. Job stress often contributes to suicides in such professions as the police, farmers and the military. But in these clusters there is also present a pattern of one member of a given group killing himself and then more numbers doing the same, probably influenced by this method of escaping their troubles. Teenagers are another group especially prone to cluster suicides. Matthew Hoffman, the physician and medical writer for the website, WebMD, lists exposure to the suicide of others as number 8 of common suicide risk factors. (Please see WebMD, or page 72 of Stay for more risk factors.)
Hecht cites other chilling statistics. A suicide researcher has discovered that each suicide affects six other people. The website, U.S.A. Suicide: 2009 Official Final Data, reports this fact. “If there is a suicide every 14.2 minutes, then there are 6 new survivors every 14.2 minutes as well.” Suicide expert, Alan L. Berman’s empirical study of this issue appears to find the number of survivors for each suicide is between 6 and 32.
The latest statistics from the April, 2015 website of the American Association of Suicidology from the year 2013 states that there were 41,049 Suicides that year, 32,055 men and 9094 women. The greatest number of suicides by race were White (37, 154) and by age, the Middle-Aged, 46-64 years (15,756.) On the average, 1 person killed themselves every 12.8 minutes.
Suicide is the 10th ranking cause of death in the United States, while homicide ranks 16th. Recent research suggests that for each death by suicide, 115 people are exposed (14.7 million annually, and among those, 25 experience a major life disruption. It seems to be a fact that each suicide has devastating effects and initially affects 25 other people. It is also important to keep in mind that it is the second ranking cause of death for the young. If the statistics are correct, and there is no reason to suppose they are not, there one million loss survivors a year. Many of these people are at risk for the same exit-taking of one’s own life. There are also 1.3 million adults who attempt suicide with non fatal outcomes, which translates to 1 attempt every 31 seconds.
Most suicides are committed with fire arms, 21,175 or 51.5 % of the total. 10,062 suicide deaths are by hanging or suffocation, 24% of the total; 783 are by cutting or piercing or 1.9% of the total; all methods but firearms are numbered at 19,974 or 48.5%of the total. Poisoning is used by 6,637 people or 16.1% and Drowning is used by about 397 or 1% of the total deaths by suicide. California had the most suicides in 2013, and the District of Columbia the least, 38 people.
There were 30,057 fatal motor vehicles incidents in 2013, resulting in 32,719 deaths. I am not trying to minimize the tragedy of automobile deaths, many of which involve alcohol and/or young people. But suicide is more common, more secret and possibly more devastating to the community. The point of Hecht’s volume, Stay, is that the act of suicide harms the community and cuts off the potential of the suicide’s future. She argues that the secular community must do more to provide reasons for people without religious beliefs to go on living.
I would like to conclude with Hecht’s excellent polemic against suicide.
Hecht liberally quotes Denis Diderot’s (1713-1784) views against suicide. The famous Enlightenment philosopher was adamantly opposed to self-destruction. His two most important reasons for eschewing suicide have been embraced by Hecht, and in turn, embraced by this lecture. There is an article attributed to Diderot in his famous Encyclopedia of 1751-1766. In that article, after perusing some of the old chestnuts against suicide, Diderot, a secular thinker, arrived at the heart of his arguments against suicide. He described suicide as an egocentric act that had no regard for the harm inflicted on other people. Hecht states that the two most important reasons he offered for why people should not take their lives were their relationships with others and their duty to themselves.
Here is Diderot speaking directly: “First we are not in the world only for ourselves. We are in close connection with other men, with our country, with our relatives, with our family. Everyone requires certain duties from which we may not exempt ourselves on our own.” Hecht explains that “… as he sees it, to willingly abandon our life and with it our fellows is a violation of the duties of society.” Here is Diderot once more: “It cannot be said that a man could find himself in a situation in which he was assured that he is of no use to society. This situation is not at all possible.” He continues to urge a person who truly believes he has nothing to offer should think of the example he can present to his fellows of prudence and courage.
Then he turns to the individual himself/herself. He believes that each person has a duty to make himself/herself as happy as they can and to continue working to improve themselves and their lot in life. He wrote: “In depriving himself of life, the suicide therefore ignores what he owes to himself.” Hecht explains that Diderot believed this obligation to ourselves “trumps all misfortune.” He argued that we should not forget what might be our future happiness and our chance to improve ourselves in the future.
Another secular philosopher, La Mettrie, (1709-1751), wrote in his 1750 Epicurean System: “…The others, those for whom religion is only what it is- a fable- and whom one cannot retain by broken ties, I will try to seduce with generous sentiments. I will show them a wife, a mistress in tears, desolate children…. What sort of monster is someone who, afflicted with a momentary pain, tears himself away from his family, his friends and his homeland, and has no other aim but to deliver himself from his most sacred duties.”
Hecht recounts the inspiring story of Titus Flavius Josephus, the noted Jewish/Roman historian. In the summer of 67 BCE, Josephus was the commander of the Jewish troops in the 1st Jewish War. Romans had broken into the Jewish garrison and reportedly slaughtered thousands of soldiers. Josephus and about forty other Jewish soldiers had resorted to hiding in a cave. There was no way out as the Roman soldiers had trapped them inside. So the soldiers decided that they would all kill themselves before the Romans could. The men drew lots to determine the order of their dying. At the end, Josephus and one other man were left. They decided to live and surrender.
Josephus, somewhat by chance and certainly by decision, went on to live a full and interesting life. He became an adviser to several Roman emperors, wrote histories still read today, married and had a family.
Josephus was desperate, but the tide turned for him that day. By choosing life, he chose a rich, full existence. One never knows what will happen or where life will take us. Many suicides are committed almost on an impulse during an extreme moment of despair. But frequently such despair passes; things begin to look less desperate. How can we know what the future will bring or how our situation might change? The courage one has to kill oneself can instead be used to bear with the present circumstances. Hecht states that Voltaire wrote: “The man, who in a fit of melancholy, kills himself today, would have wished to live if he had waited a week.”
The great philosopher, Wittgenstein (1889-1951), said that: “…If suicide is allowed, then everything is allowed. This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary wrong. And when one investigates it, it is like investigating mercury vapor in order to comprehend the nature of vapors.” When we decide to live, we invest in ourselves and the human project. Hecht argues: “… we feel a kind of communion with other human beings, and what we do to enhance that feeling is right and what we do to erode or break with that feeling of significance is wrong. Wittgenstein stated that nothing could “… be more wrong than suicide.”
We have chosen atheism and that takes courage. If we are temporarily in despair, let us try to summon up courage to choose life and reason once more. We need to choose to embrace this life, the only one we have, rather than look forward to the fantasy of some mythical afterlife. A month from now, a year from now, our circumstances are likely to change and we shall enjoy life once more. We shall enjoy living. Please be determined, please wait this despairing period out, please stay with our community, stay with us, stay with me, please, just STAY.
Thank you for your attention. I am looking forward to our discussion.
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