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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

On Suicide

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Title:     On Suicide
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

It is a remarkable proof of the inaccuracy with which most men read--that Donne's _Biathanatos_ has been supposed to countenance Suicide; and those who reverence his name have thought themselves obliged to apologize for it by urging, that it was written before he entered the church. But Donne's purpose in this treatise was a pious one: many authors had charged the martyrs of the Christian church with Suicide--on the principle that if I put myself in the way of a mad bull, knowing that he will kill me--I am as much chargeable with an act of self-destruction as if I fling myself into a river. Several casuists had extended this principle even to the case of Jesus Christ: one instance of which, in a modern author, the reader may see noticed and condemned by Kant, in his _Religion innerhalb die gronzen der blossen Vernunft_; and another of much earlier date (as far back as the 13th century, I think), in a commoner book--Voltaire's notes on the little treatise of Beccaria, _Dei delitti e delle pene_. These statements tended to one of two results: either they unsanctified the characters of those who founded and nursed the Christian church; or they sanctified suicide. By way of meeting them, Donne wrote his book: and as the whole argument of his opponents turned upon a false definition of suicide (not explicitly stated, but assumed), he endeavored to reconstitute the notion of what is essential to create an act of suicide. Simply to kill a man is not murder: _prima facie_, therefore, there is some sort of presumption that simply for a man to kill himself--may not always be so: there is such a thing as simple homicide distinct from murder: there may, therefore, possibly be such a thing as self-homicide distinct from self-murder. There _may_ be a ground for such a distinction, _ex analogia_. But, secondly, on examination, _is_ there any ground for such a distinction? Donne affirms that there is; and, reviewing several eminent cases of spontaneous martyrdom, he endeavors to show that acts so motived and so circumstantiated will not come within the notion of suicide properly defined. Meantime, may not this tend to the encouragement of suicide in general, and without discrimination of its species? No: Donne's arguments have no prospective reference or application; they are purely retrospective. The circumstances necessary to create an act of mere self- homicide can rarely concur, except in a state of disordered society, and during the _cardinal_ revolutions of human history: where, however, they _do_ concur, there it will not be suicide. In fact, this is the natural and practical judgment of us all. We do not all agree on the particular cases which will justify self-destruction: but we all feel and involuntarily acknowledge (_implicitly_ acknowledge in our admiration, though not explicitly in our words or in our principles), that there _are_ such cases. There is no man, who in his heart would not reverence a woman that chose to die rather than to be dishonored: and, if we do not say, that it is her duty to do so, _that_ is because the moralist must condescend to the weakness and infirmities of human nature: mean and ignoble natures must not be taxed up to the level of noble ones. Again, with regard to the other sex, corporal punishment is its peculiar and _sexual_ degradation; and if ever the distinction of Donne can be applied safely to any case, it will be to the case of him who chooses to die rather than to submit to that ignominy. _At present_, however, there is but a dim and very confined sense, even amongst enlightened men (as we may see by the debates of Parliament), of the injury which is done to human nature by giving legal sanction to such brutalizing acts; and therefore most men, in seeking to escape it, would be merely shrinking from a _personal_ dishonor. Corporal punishment is usually argued with a single reference to the case of him who suffers it; and _so_ argued, God knows that it is worthy of all abhorrence: but the weightiest argument against it--is the foul indignity which is offered to our common nature lodged in the person of him on whom it is inflicted. _His_ nature is _our_ nature: and, supposing it possible that _he_ were so far degraded as to be unsusceptible of any influences but those which address him through the brutal part of his nature, yet for the sake of ourselves--No! not merely for ourselves, or for the human race now existing, but for the sake of human nature, which trancends all existing participators of that nature-- we should remember that the evil of corporal punishment is not to be measured by the poor transitory criminal, whose memory and offence are soon to perish: these, in the sum of things, are as nothing: the injury which can be done him, and the injury which he can do, have so momentary an existence that they may be safely neglected: but the abiding injury is to the most august interest which for the mind of man can have any existence,--viz. to his own nature: to raise and dignify which, I am persuaded, is the first--last--and holiest command [1] which the conscience imposes on the philosophic moralist. In countries, where the traveller has the pain of seeing human creatures performing the labors of brutes, [2]--surely the sorrow which the spectacle moves, if a wise sorrow, will not be chiefly directed to the poor degraded individual--too deeply degraded, probably, to be sensible of his own degradation, but to the reflection that man's nature is thus exhibited in a state of miserable abasement; and, what is worst of all, abasement proceeding from man himself. Now, whenever this view of corporal punishment becomes general (as inevitably it will, under the influence of advancing civilization), I say, that Donne's principle will then become applicable to this case, and it will be the duty of a man to die rather than to suffer his own nature to be dishonored in that way. But so long as a man is not fully sensible of the dishonor, to him the dishonor, except as a personal one, does not wholly exist. In general, whenever a paramount interest of human nature is at stake, a suicide which maintains that interest is self-homicide: but, for a personal interest, it becomes self-murder. And into this principle Donne's may be resolved.

* * * * *

A doubt has been raised--whether brute animals ever commit suicide: to me it is obvious that they do not, and cannot. Some years ago, however, there was a case reported in all the newspapers of an old ram who committed suicide (as it was alleged) in the presence of many witnesses. Not having any pistols or razors, he ran for a short distance, in order to aid the impetus of his descent, and leaped over a precipice, at the foot of which he was dashed to pieces. His motive to the 'rash act,' as the papers called it, was supposed to be mere taedium vitae. But, for my part, I doubted the accuracy of the report. Not long after a case occurred in Westmoreland which strengthened my doubts. A fine young blood horse, who could have no possible reason for making away with himself, unless it were the high price of oats at that time, was found one morning dead in his field. The case was certainly a suspicious one: for he was lying by the side of a stone-wall, the upper part of which wall his skull had fractured, and which had returned the compliment by fracturing his skull. It was argued, therefore, that in default of ponds, &c.; he had deliberately hammered with his head against the wall; this, at first, seemed the only solution; and he was generally pronounced _felo de se_. However, a day or two brought the truth to light. The field lay upon the side of a hill: and, from a mountain which rose above it, a shepherd had witnessed the whole catastrophe, and gave evidence which vindicated the character of the horse. The day had been very windy; and the young creature being in high spirits, and, caring evidently as little for the corn question as for the bullion question, had raced about in all directions; and at length, descending too steep a part of the field, had been unable to check himself, and was projected by the impetus of his own descent like a battering ram against the wall.

Of human suicides, the most affecting I have ever seen recorded is one which I met with in a German book: the most calm and deliberate is the following, which is _said_ to have occurred at Keswick, in Cumberland: but I must acknowledge, that I never had an opportunity, whilst staying at Keswick, of verifying the statement. A young man of studious turn, who is said to have resided near Penrith, was anxious to qualify himself for entering the church, or for any other mode of life which might secure to him a reasonable portion of literary leisure. His family, however, thought that under the circumstances of his situation he would have a better chance for success in life as a tradesman; and they took the necessary steps for placing him as an apprentice at some shopkeeper's in Penrith. This he looked upon as an indignity, to which he was determined in no case to submit. And accordingly, when he had ascertained that all opposition to the choice of his friends was useless, he walked over to the mountainous district of Keswick (about sixteen miles distant)--looked about him in order to select his ground--cooly walked up Lattrig (a dependency of Skiddaw)--made a pillow of sods--laid himself down with his face looking up to the sky--and in that posture was found dead, with the appearance of having died tranquilly.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] On which account, I am the more struck by the ignoble argument of those statesmen who have contended in the House of Commons that such and such classes of men in this nation are not accessible to any loftier influences. Supposing that there were any truth in this assertion, which is a libel not on this nation only, but on man in general,--surely it is the duty of lawgivers not to perpetuate by their institutions the evil which they find, but to presume and gradually to create a better spirit.


[2] Of which degradation, let it never be forgotten that France but thirty years ago presented as shocking cases as any country, even where slavery is tolerated. An eye-witness to the fact, who has since published it in print, told me, that in France, before the revolution, he had repeatedly seen a woman yoked with an ass to the plough; and the brutal ploughman applying his whip indifferently to either. English people, to whom I have occasionally mentioned this as an exponent of the hollow refinement of manners in France, have uniformly exclaimed--'_That_ is more than I can believe;' and have taken it for granted that I had my information from some prejudiced Englishman. But who was my informer? A Frenchman, reader, --M. Simond; and though now by adoption an American citizen, yet still French in his heart and in all his prejudices.



[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: On Suicide

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