Friday, July 8, 2016

Writers in Defence of Suicide by Forbes Winslow 1840


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It will be foreign to my purpose to enter elaborately into an examination of the opinions of those who have thought proper to justify the commission of suicide. The arguments which have been advanced by Hume, Donne, Rousseau, Madame de Staël, Montesquieu, Montaigne, Gibbon, Voltaire, and Robeck, are founded on such gross and apparent fallacies, that they carry with them their own refutation.

Hume, whose pen was always ready to support opinions at variance with the precepts of the Christian religion, wrote an essay on the subject of suicide. He has endeavoured to shew that self-murder is consistent with our duty to God, our neighbour, and ourselves. Referring to the first of these three heads, he says—“As, on the one hand, the elements and other inanimate parts of creation carry on their action without regard to the particular interests and situation of men, so men are entrusted to their own judgment and discretion in the various shades of matter, and may employ every faculty with which they are endowed in order to provide for their ease, happiness, or preservation.”

If an action be clearly shewn to be an infringement of the laws of God, it certainly cannot be one which he has left us to exercise at discretion. All the laws of religion and morality are so many abridgments of man’s liberty, in the exercise of his judgment and discretion for his own happiness. Hume then proceeds to examine whether suicide be a breach of duty to our neighbour and society. He observes—“A man who retires from life does no harm to society,—he only ceases to do good; which, if it be an injury, is of the lowest kind.” The man who sacrifices his own life does a great injury to society. There are very few men in the world who have no relations or connexions, and he entails upon these the opprobrium that society attaches to the crime of suicide. Independently of this, his example acts injuriously on the minds of others, who may not have such good reasons for suicide as he has. “I believe,” continues Hume, “that no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death, that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it.” He might as well have stated that such is our horror of poverty that no man ever threw away riches which were worth keeping. The fallacy consists in drawing a conclusion from a mind supposed in its right state, in which every faculty, propensity, and aversion has its due proportion of strength; and in which the natural horror of death will secure a man from throwing away a life which is worth keeping: and this conclusion is applied to a depraved state of mind, in which it can by no means hold.

The same author asserts, “That it would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or Danube from its course, if I could; where, then, is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood out of its natural channel?” The argument is too puerile to merit refutation. He must first establish that no injury would accrue from diverting the course of the Nile and Danube, before any argument can be deduced from it which is worth one moment’s consideration.

It has been asserted, and remains uncontradicted, that Mr. Hume lent his “Essay on Suicide” to a friend, who on returning it told him it was a most excellent performance, and pleased him better than anything he had read for a long time. In order to give Hume a practical exhibition of the effects of his defence of suicide, his friend shot himself the day after returning him his Essay.
If, in any one instance, suicide might admit of something like an apology, it would have been in this—if the detestable author of this abominable treatise had, on receiving the melancholy intelligence, committed it to the flames, and terminated his own pernicious existence by a cord. But the cold-blooded infidel was too cowardly to execute summary justice on himself. With a truly diabolical spirit, his delight was to scatter firebrands among the people, and say, “Am I not in sport?”

Mr. Hume is the hero of modern infidels, because he is the only one among them whose life was not disgraced by the grossest of vices; for this, his selfish and avaricious spirit affords, perhaps, the true reason. It is well known that Hume, in more than one instance, sacrificed his principles (if he had any) to views of emolument at the suggestion of the booksellers. It has been said that he was scarcely guilty of a good or benevolent action. His treatment of Rousseau was unfeeling in the extreme; and an intimate friend of the essayist affirms, that “his heart was as hard and cold as marble.”

Montesquieu’s arguments in favour of suicide appear to border very closely on those advanced by Hume. They will be found in a letter written in the character of a Persian resident in Europe.
Rousseau15 in his “Nouvelle Heloïse” observes, “The more I reflect upon it (suicide), the more I find that the question reduces itself to this fundamental proposition:—To seek one’s own good, and avoid one’s own harm in that which hurts not another, is the law of nature.” Rousseau must first clearly establish that what he terms “seeking one’s own good” will not be productive of injury to others. According to the notion of what the majority of men conceive to be their good, much evil would result from allowing mankind to act under the influence of their own feelings and judgment. What one man considers “good,” another considers evil; and what often appears to be very beneficial to ourselves, if examined fairly, will be found to be the very reverse.
Montaigne’s arguments are borrowed from ancient writers in defence of suicide. He assumes at the commencement that suicide is not an evil. He says, that pain, and the fear of suffering a worse death, is an excusable incitement to suicide. The whole that he has advanced is but a string of sophistries.

Dr. Donne has entered more fully into the defence of suicide than any other writer. The whole of his work appears to be written for the purpose of demonstrating that it is praiseworthy to shew a contempt of life in the discharge of our duty, and in the execution of noble and beneficent enterprises.

Dr. Donne was probably drawn to the contemplation of this subject by his own sufferings. While he was secretary to Lord Chancellor Egerton, he married a young lady of rank superior to his own, which gave offence to his patron, and he was consequently dismissed from office. He suffered extreme poverty with his wife and children; and in a letter, in which he adverts to the illness of a daughter whom he tenderly loved, he says that he dares not expect relief, even from death, as he cannot afford the expense of a funeral. He afterwards took orders, and was promoted to the deanery of St. Paul’s. In the early part of his life, and probably during the period of his sufferings, he wrote his book, entitled, Biathanatos, A Declaration of that paradox or thesis, that self-homicide is not so naturally sin that it may never be otherwise.” He did not publish it. He desired it to be remembered, that it was written by Jack Donne, not by Dr. Donne; and it was published many years after his death, by his son, a dissipated young man, tempted by his necessities to forget his father’s prohibition.

Madame de Staël attempted to justify suicide in her work on the passions, but she, greatly to her honour, published her celebrated “Reflections on Suicide,” which was written as a recantation of some opinions on the subject incidentally expressed in the work alluded to. She expresses the change in her sentiments on this subject in the following curious manner:—“J’ai l’acte du suicide, dans mon ouvrage sur l’influence des passions, et je me suis repentie depuis de cétte parole inconsiderée. J’etois alors dans tout l’orgueil et la vivacité de la première jeunesse; mais à quoi servirait-il de vivre, si ce n’était dans l’espoir de s’ameliorer.”

Madame de Staël has treated the subject with considerable ingenuity and ability, and with a great deal of eloquence, but she has hardly enforced sufficiently the arguments against this crime which may be deduced from the use of that portion of existence we pass upon earth. We are wise and good just in proportion as we consider and treat life and all its incidents as moral means to a great end. Upon every moment of time an eternity is dependent; and whenever we sacrifice a moment, we throw away an instrument by which we might have created an eternity of happiness.
All mankind are not placed upon an equality. Some experience pleasure, others pain, privation or suffering; the tools with which we are to work may be inconvenient or burthensome, or light and pleasant; but they must be the most useful and efficacious, or they would not be put into our hands; at any rate, they are all we have. We cannot fix too deeply on our minds the truth that life is not an absolute, but a relative existence, as in its relation to the eternity with which it is connected, consists all its value and importance.

Robert of Normandy, surnamed the Devil, sacrificed his own life, and before doing so he wrote a work in defence of suicide, in which he argued that there was no law that forbids a person to deprive himself of life; that the love of life is to be subservient to that of happiness; that our body is a mean and contemptible machine, the preservation of which we ought not so highly to value; if the human soul be mortal, it receives but a slight injury, but if immortal, the greatest advantage; a benefit ceases to be one when it becomes troublesome, and then surely a man ought to be allowed to resign it; a voluntary death is often the only method of avoiding the greatest crime; and finally, that suicide is justified by the example of most nations in the world. Such is the substance of the arguments in favour of suicide urged by Robert of Normandy, and worthy of his celebrated namesake.

Gibbon and Sir Thomas More are cited as champions in favour of suicide; but there is nothing which these authors have advanced that merits a separate consideration.

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