Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/April 1880/A Consideration of Suicide



NICHOLAS RIDLEY and Hugh Latimer stood at the stake to be burned for heresy. Fastened to the body of each was a bag of powder, placed there by friends with the intention of bringing the sufferings of the victims to a speedy termination. Latimer died first. The flames, rising rapidly, touched the bag of powder, and the torture for him was at an end. Ridley was not so fortunate. The wood, prepared for his execution, being green and tightly packed, the fire smoldered, and he was long in agony, crying out that he could not burn; until one of the spectators having loosened the fagots and admitted air, the flame swept up to the powder and brought death.

It is certain that the use of powder was not included in the sentence of death. It was permitted, not authorized. Death being sure, the persecutors were magnanimous enough, at the last, to allow it to come quickly. As the Athenian tribunal granted the privilege of hemlock to Socrates; as the English executioners failed to carry out, literally, the horrible sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering; so the Marian officials did not insist on the extreme rigor of the sentence. But was this hastening of death, in a way unauthorized by law, either murder on the part of the friends of Ridley and Latimer, or suicide on their own part?

Under the old, stern common law, literally construed, the martyrs who used and the friends who furnished the powder were guilty, the former of suicide and the latter of murder. "The law of England," says Blackstone (vol. ii., p. 189), wisely and religiously considers that no man hath a power to destroy life but by commission from God, the author of it; and, as the suicide is guilty of a double offense, one spiritual, in evading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for, the other temporal, against the King, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects, the law has, therefore, ranked this among the highest crimes, making it a peculiar species of felony, a felony committed on one's self. And this admits of accessories before the fact, as well as other felonies; for if one persuades another to kill himself, and he does so, the adviser is guilty of murder. A felo-de-se, therefore, is he that deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful, malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death." The English laws further provided for the forfeiture of the goods and chattels of a suicide to the King. In the State of New York, a felo-de-se does not incur the penalty of forfeiture of property; but "every person deliberately assisting another in the commission of self-murder shall be deemed guilty of manslaughter in the first degree." (2 R. S. 661, § 7.) If a condemned criminal, on the eve of his execution, takes poison, he commits suicide. If, while standing on the scaffold, some one hands him a knife, with which he takes his life, he commits suicide, and the person who furnishes him with the means of death is guilty of manslaughter. If, just before the drop falls, some well-intentioned friend, deeming a speedy death preferable to a slow one, sends a bullet through the heart of the condemned, the friend is guilty of murder.

The relation of suicide to human laws it is not the purpose of this article to consider. Undoubtedly the tacit contract between the government and the individual, while it demands on one side protection to the individual, demands on the other side service to the state; and it rests with neither party to the contract to terminate it at pleasure. Every person, to a certain extent and within proper limitations, places at the disposal of the government under which he lives, his life, liberty, and property. The government becomes the trustee, and, as long as the trust is properly executed, the individual—the cestui que trust—has no right to interfere. But we are to consider suicide morally, not legally. The question to be answered is this: Is suicide ever justifiable?

What is suicide? The voluntary termination of one's own life. And this is very different from submission to or acquiescence in involuntary death. A man may long for the approach of death; he may embrace it eagerly when it comes; but this is not the voluntary termination of life. The voluntary termination of life implies some act or failure to act on the part of an individual, which has for its object, in whole or in part, the death of the actor. Suicide, then, is the voluntary termination of one's own life. Is it of any consequence that the involuntary termination is inevitable? Unquestionably not. Death, whether soon or late, is a creditor who never releases his debt; and, if in one case the certainty of death is pleaded in extenuation or justification, the same plea may be offered in every case. Does the proximity of involuntary death furnish any excuse for voluntary death? Certainly not. The hastening of death is the voluntary termination of life; and the voluntary termination of life is suicide.

If, then, the fact that death is near and inevitable does not make the voluntary termination of life anything less than suicide, may not the applicability of that word depend upon the motive which prompts such voluntary termination? Here, again, the answer must be in the negative. Keeping in mind the definition, let us suppose that two persons, shipwrecked at sea, find themselves clinging to the same fragment of the wreck, which is not buoyant enough to support both. Either both must drown, or one must push off the other and live by his death, or one must of his own will surrender the entire possession of the floating support to the other and seek death. In the first, case death is accidental to both—they retain their grasp on life as long as possible; in the second case death is accidental to the one who is thrust from the support, and his companion is guilty of murder; and in the third case the one who surrenders possession commits suicide. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend"; but he who displays this great love is literally guilty of suicide. Have not many, whose memory the world honors, been guilty of this so called crime? What was the act of the legendary Curtius, of the three hundred at Thermopylæ, of Arnold von Winkelried? What is the act of the engineer, who rides to death on his engine to save the lives of the passengers? What is the act of the cashier who, with the promise of death as a penalty for refusal to open the safe, prefers death to dishonor? Are not all these acts suicidal? It can not alter the character of the act that the voluntary termination of life is not brought about by one's own hand. Did not Saul commit suicide, when, at his request, the young Amalekite slew him? If a man, placed on a railroad track by enemies, but released a few moments before the approach of a train, refuses to leave the track and is killed by the train, will it be claimed that he is innocent of suicide? It is evident that, whether a person takes his own life without the intervention of any other agency than the person himself, or places himself voluntarily in a position where death is inevitable, or, being involuntarily placed in a position where death is inevitable, and a way of escape being provided, refuses to take advantage of it—in each and all of these cases the termination of life is voluntary and constitutes suicide.

This interpretation is too stern and hard; and people recognize the fact by refusing to call things by their right names. They do not say that Arnold von Winkelried committed suicide, but that he "sacrificed himself for his country." They do not suggest that John Maynard should be buried at cross-roads with a stake through his body, but assert that he has evinced the most sublime self-abnegation. If John Brown had been promised the freedom of four million slaves, on condition that he should voluntarily submit to death on the gallows, his acceptance of the condition would not have insured him condemnation, but apotheosis.

It becomes clear, then, that suicide is sometimes not only justifiable but praiseworthy; and men make that justification or praise dependent upon the motive with which life is surrendered. To determine whether the voluntary termination of life is reprehensible or laudable, an answer must first be given to the question whether the act is selfish or unselfish, whether the motive is egoistic or altruistic. If the object is to save others from suffering, the act is justifiable. If the object is merely to save one's self from suffering, the act is unjustifiable.

This distinction between motives seems to be the true one, whether we look at suicide from the purely moral or from the religious and Christian standpoint. Take the Christian apothegm, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend," or, to put it still more tersely, "The greatest love is shown by altruistic suicide," and discover, if you can, where the line is to be drawn. Does it mean that a man should lay down his life only when, by so doing, lie saves the lives of others? Then he may not submit to death, though by so doing he saves millions from slavery—nay, though by so doing he saves a world from slavery. Then he may not abandon life, though by that act he rescues others from eternal agony. Then he must not prefer death to dishonor, but dishonor to death. Then he must hold his own life as more valuable than the welfare of his race. If a promise were made, with the certainty of fulfillment, that should any human being voluntarily submit to death pain would disappear from the world, do you think that he who should give his life in exchange for the happiness of a world would be branded with the mark of crime?

But, if we take the next step and assert that there are other motives, besides the wish to save the lives of others, which will justify a man in voluntarily terminating his own life, where shall we draw the line? If a man may die for the happiness of a world, may he die for the happiness of a million? If he may die for the happiness of a million, may he die for the happiness of a thousand? If he may die for the happiness of a thousand, may he die for the happiness of ten? If he may die for the happiness of ten, may he die for the happiness of one? At what point does the happiness of others accumulate to such an extent as to exceed in value a human life?

Let us suppose a case—one of which experience furnishes numerous examples: A man, through some misfortune, finds himself wrecked and shattered in body; transformed into a living fixture. He can no longer support himself. He becomes a burden for some one to carry. If he is sure that the burden is borne willingly, he may consent to live. But suppose that the shoulders of the bearer ache, and that when death lifts the burden from him he draws a sigh of relief. May not the burden itself provide the way of escape and throw itself from the shoulders of its unwilling bearer to the shoulders of death? Or, take another illustration. Had Enoch Arden found that the only way in which his return could be kept secret, and his wife and family saved from misery, was by the sacrifice of his life, would he deserve condemnation if he had sought death?

It will be observed that the question has been discussed from an altruistic standpoint. This, of course, excludes Ridley and Latimer. It excludes all those who, threatened with death by disease, and whose life can be saved only at the price of some operation excruciatingly painful, decline to pay the price. It excludes all those who turn to death as a refuge from their own sufferings.

But, viewed in the light of pure altruism, when does suicide become justifiable? Each person must give answer for himself. Every individual is sole judge of the circumstances which justify a surrender of life. It is true that from this opinion orthodoxy dissents. It reasons thus: "Man has been placed upon the earth by God for some good purpose: it is fitting that he remain there until granted leave to return. Let him not enter the presence of his Maker unsummoned." But the same reasoning will serve the most selfish and cowardly egoism. Let the three hundred at Thermopylæ take to their heels, crying out that they will wait until God calls them. Let Arnold von Winkelried leave the field, protesting that he will not usurp the prerogative of the Almighty by assuming control of his own life. Let the men at sea cling to the floating fragment to the last, comforting themselves with the assurance that they have no right to determine for themselves whether their Maker has summoned them. Let the engineer abandon his train with the conviction that his duty to the Author of his being requires him to preserve his life. Certainly orthodoxy does not mean what it says. It cries aloud, "Wait until God calls you"; but adds, sotto voce, "Use your own judgment as to what constitutes a call." If it commands men not to take their own lives, it qualifies the command by urging them to lay down their lives for others. In fact, the assertion that men should wait until God summons them is merely putting the case in different language. For who is to decide what constitutes a summons? Evidently the individual himself. But to say that every one must determine for himself what constitutes a summons from God is to say that each person is sole judge of the circumstances which justify a voluntary termination of life.

From the Roman who, devoting himself and the enemy to the infernal gods, rushed to death to bring victory to his companions, to the suicides at the shrine of Juggernaut; from these to the man who "lays down his life for his friend"; from this to the engineer who sacrifices himself for the passengers; from this to the man who dies that thousands may be made happy; from this to the man who refuses to live when his life makes others miserable; from this to the man who turns to death to avoid becoming a burden to his friends—the descent is steady and connected. The last case may claim relationship with the first; and between all, filling up any imaginable gaps, are numberless other cases which belong to the same family. All these are cases of altruistic suicide. Who shall point out the place where suicide ceases to be honorable and becomes dishonorable? Who shall draw the line and say, "Thus far and no farther"? The later Stoics attempted it, and the distinction which they made was not unlike that of orthodoxy. "If you have no further need for me in prison," says Epictetus, "I will come out; if you want me again, I will return." "For how long?" "Just so long as reason requires that I should continue in this body; when that is over, take it, and fare ye well. Only let us not act inconsiderately, nor from cowardice, nor on slight grounds, since that would be contrary to the will of God, for he hath need of such a world and such beings to live on earth. But if he sounds a retreat, as he did to Socrates, we are to obey him when he sounds it, as our General." Here likewise the decision concerning what constitutes a summons from God rests with the individual. Each person determines for himself the propriety of terminating life.

Condemnation of even egoistic suicide should be indulged in cautiously. Epictetus, indeed, thought that it might sometimes be allowable. "But remember the principal thing," he says, "that the door is open. Do not be more fearful than children; but as they, when the play does not please them, say, 'I will play no longer,' so do you, in the same case, say, 'I will play no longer,' and go; but, if you stay, do not complain." The doctrine was this: A man is directed to play the game of life. God deals the cards. The man may receive hands with which it is impossible for him to win; yet he must play the game to the best of his ability. But suppose he detects his adversaries cheating. He may then throw down the cards and leave the table. It is not always safe to pronounce suicide unjustifiable, even where the motive is a wish to avoid self-suffering. I do not find it easy to regard Ridley and Latimer as criminals instead of martyrs. I do not consider myself competent to declare that he who receives harsh treatment at the inn of life is not warranted in curtailing his visit and returning home.

But, granting that egoistic suicide is blameworthy, who shall pass judgment upon the character of that suicide which has for its motive a desire for the welfare of others? Surely not man. He has no moral balance so absolutely true that he can safely weigh the motives which lead to suicidal self-abnegation, and pronounce some sufficient and others insufficient. Let the decision be left where it belongs—with Omniscience.