A Critical reading of ‘Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It’

The whole of humanity suffers when someone opts out. p.4

Ideas can take lives and other ideas can save lives. p.6

The kernel of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s thesis is an injunction arrived at after the suicides of close friends, ‘One of the best predicators of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means that suicide is also delayed homicide. You have to stay.’ Hecht suspends euthanasia, which she acknowledges involves different criteria; although she does raise Hippocrates’ opposition. Additionally, she is, ‘attempting to reach those people sufficiently lucid as to be available to be reached through argument.’ (p.11). Her aim in proscribing is not to belittle pain, but praise the struggle and its value, ‘I assign no blame’ (p.12). There does appear a tension; a moral without responsibility? Yet it is justified, touching the complex interplay of responsibility best left to conscience. Hecht begins Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by elucidating the urgency with reference to social science data (epidemiology, clinical psychology) and returns to this theme later. What she shows is the prevalence of suicide and the ways in which one sparks more, especially amongst the same demographics like in the contemporary U.S. military, which evidence suggests is more a response to a suggestive culture than the horrors of duty. She also sets up what will be the core historical assertion; religious command enforced by postmortem punishment as well as the secular (that is, Enlightenment individualist) insistences on atomised free-choice are wrong, the former inspiring the latter error:

Either the universe is a cold dead place with a little growth of sentient but atomized beings each all by him-or-herself trying to generate meaning, or we are in a universe that is alive with a growth of sentient beings whose members have made a pact with each other to persevere. p.174

The history is sweeping, but engaging. She commences with a motive typography of suicide in the ancient western world: i.e. loss e.g. Cleopatra, Cato the Younger, the daughters of Erechtheus, Icarius’ daughter Erigone, the Sphinx and the Sirens; altruism e.g. Iphigenia, Orion’s daughters, Arria Paetus and Socrates; shame e.g. Samson, Ajax and Jocasta; love e.g. Dido, Narcissus, Mark Antony, Thisbe and her lover Pyramus. Hecht also looks at less common motives: Hercules to prevent unnecessary pain before death; the women of Miletus enigmatic cluster-suicide; Cleomenes I’s madness; Lucretius and Seneca’s possible tædium vitæ; the martyrdom of Jews as in Masada siege. She shows that while attitudes are ambivalent, motives like hopelessness are rarely depicted. Moreover, along with love, endorsed even in older Judaism, Greece and Rome, where enforced suicide is not rare, the ideal was exemplified in the Stoic, Socratic, et al. traditions of calm acceptance. It is also the case that, ‘suicide was less commonly committed against the family than for them.’ (p.19). It is at odds with ‘the alienation and loneliness associated with suicide in the modern world’ (p.43); with Lucretia and her peers, such action was aesthetically, ‘community orientated, and heroic.’ (p.39).

Christianity’s digression from Judaism’s permissiveness about suicide is located in Constantine’s conclusion of the period of martyrdom and the later councils of Guadix, Carthage, Arles, Angers, Orleans, Barga, Antisidor, &c. Basically, they were decisive, frequently, but nonetheless, if we look back far enough, ‘Our earliest records confirm that Christians did not consider suicide a sin; indeed, it could be celebrated.’ (p.45). Hecht’s claim is that after deaths in imitation of Christ became surplus to requirement a need arose to quell it. This is problematised by later sectarian recurrences and fudges what is meant by martyrdom, but the gist is sound. She does even better noting Augustine’s anti-suicide reading of the Decalogue as exemplary of the development of an afterlife, guilt substituting honour and the emergence of the intentional self. Influenced by Josephus’ happy survival of a mass suicide, Judaism also took a strong line against. Islam took much less of a journey, praising endurance and opposing suicide in the Koran and later. All of which, together with the eclipse of Stoicism and Paganisms, meant the Middle Ages retained a consistent pro-life stance, with suicide an instrument of the devil. And Christianity’s particular insistence was aided by Aquinas’ Aristotelian claims for community, healthy self-love, as well as a reiteration of Augustine’s commandment. Such would also be affirmed again by the architects of the reformation, Luthor and Calvin, although martyrdom (see John Foxe) prominently factored again and predestinationism complicated matters.

Despite acknowledging continuities and that the Middle Ages cannot be reduced to a stagnant religious mess, Hecht picks up again with the Renaissance as, ‘a dramatic efflorescence in almost every aspect of human ingenuity.’ (p.63—perhaps the most pop-historical claim.) She is on firmer ground with Petrarch and the revival of the Ancient ethicists’ discourse about suicide; variously amended, censored and reinforced by Christianity. Assumptions were challenged and suicide, if not accepted, was again tolerated; for Robert Burton, it was medicalised. All of which progresses to the Enlightenment of this bulletin-point history, in which Hecht draws the battle lines between a philosophy enamoured with the ancients and a religion that tortures the dead. The impression that Enlightenment philosophy was chiefly pro-suicide is said to be more to do with how shocking the writings of people like Hume and d’Holbach proved. Rather, it is the critique of religion itself (from its moderate sceptics to the apotheosis of libertines) that is said to chiefly open up tolerance for suicide, evidenced by contemporaneous claims from Christians like Berkeley; although Hecht also admits a complex of other causes including private property and medicalisaton and moving away from traditions of Satanic possession to value neutral treatment of melancholia or depression.

Drawing on the history, Hecht turns from descriptive to normative accounts. The most important appeal is, ‘that we owe it to the world and to our community to stay alive.’ We find this in Pythagoras and Plato, who also recommends the virtues of patience and inner strength as Milton would later champion in poetry. Aristotle deals with judicial difficulties, locating the harm in the polis, but Hecht finds less sympathy or nuance. Maimonides’ insistence on interdependence is poignantly persuasive. And Renaissance Humanism is another strand; Shakespeare and Montaigne’s stress of our epistemic and temporal limits, the latter’s insistence on the formative value of suffering, Henley’s insistence on life’s inherent purpose. In the Enlightenment, secularists like Diderot would appeal to social duties, but also duty to oneself, contrasted with religious pro-suicide arguments like John Donne’s Biathanatos.

Hecht takes the appeal to our future self especially seriously and mentions numerous variations; the reasoning reminds me of William Hazlitt’s against egotism; i.e. our relation to our future is as our relation to another with all that normatively implies. Although for Hazlitt the argument meant we should treat others as ourselves, that is better, for Hecht it means we should treat ourselves as we treat others, again better. This shows how such thought produces odd results, but it makes sense when one considers how the targets are different. Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and the early Romantic Rousseau made similar cases. Kant especially formulated his categorical imperative to preclude moral suicide as for him we are objectively humanity and therefore murder humanity with ourselves; positing that the courage to end one’s existence is better deployed in living. Amusingly the deontologist would be echoed by the utilitarian J. S. Mill, who also felt that suicide precluded too much to be justified—as did G. K. Chesterton. And Wittgenstein suggests it even permits too much to be allowed.

As Hecht moves further into modernity she looks at an argument exemplified differently by Schopenhauer and D.H. Lawrence; namely, that suicide offers no escape from suffering, as no ‘you’ endures to escape; peace, calm, detachment, the ideals of the Stoics, can only be attained and are worth attaining in this life. She mentions Freud’s idea that the suicidal is internalising and misdirecting anger and Emanuel Levinas’ that ethics is the first philosophy and commitment to the irreducibly different and Other is primary. In chapter eight she singles out Emile Durkheim and Albert Camus as the major Twentieth Century voices on the subject; both decidedly against. The formers typography of suicide was groundbreaking; egoistic, lack of community; altruistic, lack of self separate from community; anomic, social disorientation and fatalistic, inescapable negative thought patterns; all of which stem from a profound uprootedness that needs correcting by new modes of collective living. Camus starts from absurdity, but takes the contrarian position that meaninglessness is liberating and can supply a reason to live rather than suggest suicide. More interestingly she refers to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work on honour; suggesting that social mores are most shaped and reshaped by this psychological factor. Hecht suggests the suicide survival could be thereby encouraged.  She also critically skims Cioran, who rejects suicide despite his pessimism; Foucault, who lauds suicide after the Ancients and Thomas Szasz, who argues against the existence of mental illness and that suicide is a basic right.

Stay directly touches on the ethical debate between Aristotelianism and Stoicism over what the latter called indifferents, but fails to explore this crucial debate amongst its historical examples. For Stoics virtue is the sole good, which is why suicide is valid in many instances and a calm, detached life is best. For Aristotle circumstances matter too as the community and its ties sustain virtue. She locates her arguments more eclectically, sometimes borrowing liberally from philosophers more of the Stoic bent such as Schopenhauer, but her belief in the weight of community and opposition to suicide is Aristotelian, which deserves acknowledgement. What she draws from Plato was developed by Aristotle; when she cites Aquinas she is citing Aristotle by proxy; Henley’s teleology is Aristotelian; Durkheim’s communitarianism is very much vulgar Aristotelianism, &c. Hecht even identifies how Milton’s thought on the cathartic usefulness of tragedy was from the Poetics, but she seems reluctant to identify too strongly with one tradition, instead jumbling ideas as though quantity were more important than consistency. This in part comes from the ambiguity of a methodology that is not ethics, history or even normative history, but jumps between the three approaches at whim.

There are other minor omissions and errors. Hecht sadly neglects to address more sophisticated works tolerant of voluntary death, like concentration camp survivor Jean Améry’s phenomenological study—although his On Suicide is obscure. A little more seriously she never examines what is meant by a prescriptive God other than eternal punishment; as if a divine ban were purely instrumental, a kind of Platonic lie. Her Nietzschean genealogical dismissal of religion as grounded in pain relies on a selective and surface reading of history. She falsely identifies Camus with Sartre’s existentialism, indicative of superficiality. And along that pattern, following Diderot’s lead, she takes Donne’s Biathanatos as a straightforward, ‘defence of suicide from a religious perspective.’ (p.84) ignoring how it was an example of a Paradox, a devil’s advocate genre of rhetoric. And although she acknowledges that the Eighteenth Century English malady is merely alleged, too much of her historical thesis about the period nonetheless relies on this tenuous explosion of suicide. Most grievous is the poor evidence supporting the oft repeated claim that Christianity’s arguments failed because of an over insistence on the Decalogue to the detriment and overshadowing of more nuanced reasoning, which were consequently cast aside with Christian barbarism; a baby with the bathwater scenario. Yet surely Aristotelian appeals to community are even more antithetical to the Enlightenment and modernity than theism per se and would be asides from medieval brutality?

I suspect Hecht the secularist is moved to shield the Enlightenment from the kind of scathing critique a philosopher like MacIntyre might level; precisely that ethics suffered a collapse so catastrophic we no longer have any fixed criteria on which to start to think about these kinds of interpersonal problems. Instead the consistent message is that the religious are still to blame for pro-suicide positions, ‘The extreme position of those who would prohibit all [euthanasia] suicide sometimes has the effect of pushing those on the more tolerant side of the argument to a broader stance’ (p.224) She hints a better critique when writing more generally about modernity’s liminal flux, ‘individual people’s crimes and punishments were increasingly seen as matters belonging to them personally rather than to the community in general.’ (p.62) And again when she drifts from praising Sartre and Camus’ anti-suicide ideas to not so approvingly observing, ‘they do consider it each person’s right, precisely because for them there is no God and no outside meaning, no framing significance that comes from outside the self.’ (p.206) Had she gone further against modernity it would have been a more interesting book, although it would have opened up a larger array of difficulties and ambiguities and might have prevented her so liberally switching between schools of thought to collect philosophical arguments as one might Pokémon cards, to be deployed with chief regard for utility rather than truth.

None of my criticisms undermine the inestimable value of Stay. Hecht’s prose is clear; her scholarly scope is humbling and her message in favour of life, optimism and community very requisite. From the first chapter to the last she demonstrates sensitivity borne from serious consideration and I feel better for having been exposed to her thoughts. As an atheist at odds with so much nonbelief it is profoundly reassuring to find a popular atheist writer taking the time to say that, ‘staying alive though suicidal is an act of radiant generosity, a way in which we can save each other.’ (p.154)

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One Response to A Critical reading of ‘Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It’

  1. manyironsinthefire says:

    Reblogged this on Cognitive Dissident.

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